Backers of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages may have been more prescient than they knew.
A bill calling for the tax faces an uncertain future as it heads toward the House Ways and Means Committee, where a majority of members are said to oppose it. But it survived unusual parliamentary maneuvering in the House last week when the House Health Care Committee reversed a previous vote and voted for the soda tax, 7-4.
In doing so, the committee put itself on the side of a growing movement, backed by persuasive scientific evidence, pinpointing sugar as a major public health risk. In years to come, as the nation is forced to come to grips with its self-destructive addiction to excessive sugar, the committee’s vote will prove to have been farsighted.
The evidence is mounting. In a new study highlighted in a column by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, scientists described clear, solid and broad-based evidence showing that excessive consumption of sugar is a direct cause of the surge in diabetes in the United States.
Much attention in recent years has focused on the epidemic of obesity, which is seen as a cause of many ills, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The role played in the expansion of America’s waistline by junk food, including sugar-sweetened drinks, is an obvious one. The food industry itself has fitfully tried, and mostly failed, to address the problem, as seen in a New York Times Magazine article a week ago.
But the food industry is as addicted to profits as consumers are addicted to sugar, fat and salt. The big companies, including the beverage companies, know that shareholders want them to sell as much food as they can. Thus, the companies argue that they are giving consumers what they want. The trouble is that what consumers want is making them sick. The tobacco analogy is one the food companies fear but which is gaining greater relevance.
The Vermont proposal is to add a 1-cent-per-ounce tax to sugar-sweetened drinks. Advocates say tobacco taxes have shown a direct link between increased taxes and decreased consumption, and they believe that a tax on beverages would cause people to buy less, especially kids and poor people.
Of course, Vermont store owners and beverage companies don’t want to sell less soda. Many Vermonters also have a natural resistance against government telling them what they can and cannot consume. Gov. Peter Shumlin caters to these feelings when he opposes the tax, though the health effects of sugar consumption are becoming increasingly burdensome to the health care system and the nation.
One of the surprising findings of the latest study is the direct link between sugar intake and diabetes. Previously, people were working on the assumption that sugar led to obesity and obesity led to diabetes. The study finds that sugar causes diabetes even when it doesn’t cause obesity. That sugar contributes to obesity is another of its ill effects.
The central finding of the new study is that calories created by sugar are far more damaging than other calories consumed. Bittman summarized the findings this way: “For every 12 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverage introduced per person per day into a country’s food system, the rate of diabetes goes up 1 percent.”
The study looked at people in 175 countries over a decade. The study’s sophistication suggests it is the gold standard, scientifically, and “a smoking gun,” as Bittman put it, with regard to sugar.
The study’s implications go beyond whether one small New England state imposes a tax to discourage consumption. It has implications for public policy broadly and the kinds of recommendations and warnings that will be coming from the Food and Drug Administration. It has major implications for the food industry, which can be counted on to try to cloud and discredit the findings, as the tobacco industry did with research on tobacco’s lethal effects.
Sugar, too, when consumed to excess, is lethal, inasmuch as it causes diabetes, which is sometimes lethal. And soda is one of the most efficient delivery systems of sugar. One can of it contains eight teaspoons of sugar, which is generally disguised by the tasty recipes that make Coke, Pepsi and other beverages so desirable. Most of us wouldn’t spoon eight teaspoons of sugar into a glass of water or juice and hand it to our children for them to drink. But that’s what we do when we give them a soda.
The governor and members of the Legislature can be expected to defend the grocers and the food industry for a few more years, but eventually, they will have to give way to reality. For now the Health Care Committee stands on the right side of history.