Could Taxes Or Food Stamp Restrictions Tame America's Sweet Tooth? : The Salt A tax proposal on the table in Massachusetts could discourage sugar consumption a bit by making sugary foods more expensive. But outside Massachusetts, surveys show that a majority of taxpayers oppose the idea of a "sin tax" on soda and candy.

Could Taxes Or Food Stamp Restrictions Tame America's Sweet Tooth?

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And let's turn now to the science of sugar. New research links excessive consumption to an increase in all types of chronic diseases. NPR's Allison Aubrey looks at how much is too much and the efforts in two states to get people to cut back.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The American Heart Association says we should be eating no more than nine teaspoons of sugar a day, excluding fruit. That's about 150 calories worth. But we're eating way more than that according to Robert Lustig, a physician at UC San Francisco.

DR. ROBERT LUSTIG: The bottom line is that our sugar consumption has just gone through the roof.

AUBREY: He says the typical American is eating some 28 teaspoons worth of sugar a day. That's 450 extra calories, and our bodies just can't handle it. Lustig argues if we don't cut back, we can't fight the rise in type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

LUSTIG: We're talking about cutting back the amount of sugar in our diet by two-thirds. That's a lot. And it can't be done unless there's a public health intervention of some sort.

AUBREY: The Democratic governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick has put on proposal on the table that could discourage sugar consumption: make it more expensive. Extend the state's 6.5 percent sales tax to include candy, soda and other sweetened drinks, and use the revenue to pay for wellness and health promotion programs. It's not a proposal you may expect to hear from a man who once worked for Coca-Cola.

GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK: Well, it's very popular. I mean, mind you, I used to work in the soda-pop business. So I know the arguments on the other side. But it is a very popular proposal. We proposed it before and I hope the legislature takes it up and acts on it this time.

AUBREY: A poll of Massachusetts voters found that as long as the money raised by taxing soda and candy went towards education and health promotion, about two-thirds of the voters said they would support it. Alex Zaroulis of the governor's budget office says that's because they say it could save money in the long run.

ALEX ZAROULIS: People are willing to look at these things because they understand that the cost of treating diabetes and other things that can be impacted by unhealthy diets is having a serious impact on the state's finances.

AUBREY: But Chris Gindlesperger of the American Beverage Association says outside of Massachusetts, national polls find the majority of people oppose taxing soda. They don't trust that the money would really go towards supporting programs that make people healthier.

CHRIS GINDLESPERGER: What helps them get to a place where they're leading a more healthy lifestyle is educating them on how to balance calories that they consume with the calories that they expend through physical activity.

AUBREY: In other words, use education, not people's pocketbooks, to try to influence their choices. His industry is also opposed to a new bill in the Florida legislature. There, Republican State Senator Ronda Storms is hoping to restrict the use of food stamps so that recipients can't use them to buy soda, sugary treats or other unhealthy foods.

STATE SENATOR RONDA STORMS: Should we give hungry kids food? Absolutely. But I don't think the goal is to provide Oreos and Mountain Dew.

AUBREY: She says that's a misuse of public assistance dollars. People are free to eat whatever they want on their own dime. But she's been visited by a steady stream of lobbyists in the food and beverage industry who are strongly opposed. They say there's no fair way to target junk food. If a snack has a little sugar added, is it automatically out? It's not clear.

The industry groups have aligned themselves with a non-profit, anti-hunger organization called the Food Research and Action Center. Jim Weill is the president.

JIM WEILL: With tens of thousands of items in the store, it's extremely hard for a grocer to separate out what's covered by the program and not covered under these rules.

AUBREY: The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied New York's efforts to enact similar limits on food stamp purchases. Senator Storms' Florida bill is scheduled to come before a State Senate budget committee tomorrow.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.



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