RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A big challenge of the health care overhaul debate is how to find hundreds of billions of dollars to change the system. One idea is a tax on junk food, in particular soda. Public health advocates say soda is directly linked to obesity, which is partly responsible for skyrocketing health care costs. Kelley Weiss of Capital Public Radio ventured out to see if a soda tax could both help improve the nation's health and lower costs.
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KELLEY WEISS: The Mace Market sits in the suburb of Davis, west of Sacramento. Shiny bags of potato chips, Ding Dongs and candy bars line the shelves, and brightly lit, humming refrigerators are packed with bottles of soda.
Harold Goldstein is a physician and executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. He says this is ground zero.
Dr. HAROLD GOLDSTEIN (Executive Director, California Center for Public Health Advocacy): I am seeing a whole wall of sugar here.
WEISS: He's heading straight for the soda.
Dr. GOLDSTEIN: And let me open the refrigerator here and just see what this is. It looks like an obese bottle of Coca-Cola. It is 33.8 fluid ounces. So, each of these has, if I do the math…
WEISS: And the math is 28 teaspoons in that one bottle. Goldstein says it's a problem when someone consumes that much sugar.
Dr. GOLDSTEIN: So, the science is really clear.
WEISS: He says this science was detailed in an unprecedented survey done by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. The center interviewed more than 40,000 Californians about their soda-drinking habits.
Dr. GOLDSTEIN: This study that we did with UCLA showed that regardless of income or ethnicity, adults who drink one or more soda a day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.
WEISS: On average, Goldstein says Americans drink 50 gallons of soda a year. So, he says, we should tax it so the beverage industry pays its fair share for the obesity epidemic.
The store clerk, Satnam Cheema, is watching our conversation with interest. I ask him what his favorite soda is.
Mr. SATNAM CHEEMA (Store Clerk, Mace Market): No, I don't drink the soda.
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Mr. CHEEMA: I drink the water. I've never tried soda.
WEISS: But he says a lot of his customers have a different opinion, and he doesn't want to see a soda tax.
Mr. CHEEMA: The more the tax, everything come in more tax, then everyone out of business, then.
WEISS: But the director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Kelly Brownell, says the tax would have a big payoff.
Professor KELLY BROWNELL (Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University): Using a tax, much as has happened with tobacco, to try to change consumption patterns in a way that would benefit overall public health and provide a very much-needed revenue for programs seems like a home run.
WEISS: Brownell says a soda tax could generate a lot of money. He and several other public health experts argue this in a New England Journal of Medicine article out this month.
Prof. BROWNELL: The list of ways you could use revenue from a soda tax is a mile long, but the best use of it would be to make healthy foods more available.
WEISS: The American Beverage Association says not so fast. Spokesman Kevin Keane says you can't compare tobacco taxes and soda taxes.
Mr. KEVIN KEANE (Spokesman, American Beverage Association): You can have a soft drink and be a healthy person. You can't say the same about smoking.
WEISS: Keane says he doesn't believe taxing soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages like sports and energy drinks and juices will eliminate obesity, anyway. Instead, he says, people should take more responsibility for their health. And, he adds, a new tax could hurt a lot of people.
Mr. KEANE: We have some economic data that shows there'd be a - $22 billion lost in economic output, you know, whether it's jobs, whether it's people buying less product, etc. But there's no doubt, and we concede that it would affect sales.
WEISS: Still, public health advocates like Kelly Brownell at Yale are banking on a penny-an-ounce federal soda tax. He says it could generate $150 billion in the next 10 years.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are toying with the idea of using a soda tax to help pay for the health care overhaul. But Brownell says at this point, it's still just an idea.
For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss in Sacramento.
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