National Soda Tax Would Save Half a Million Kids From Obesity—and Save Money Too

Public health researchers say taxing sugary drinks may be one of the most cost-effective ways to address the public health problems the beverages are associated with.
(Photo: Flickr)
Nov 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here’s something the soda industry doesn’t want: another headline touting the benefits of a widespread tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Hot on the heels of recent news that the peso-per-liter tax on sugary drinks that Mexico adopted in 2013 appears to be driving down soda consumption in that country, a team of U.S. public health researchers published a study Monday that finds a national soda tax may be one of the most cost-effective ways to curb the epidemic of childhood obesity in the States.

The team, led by researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, examined the cost-effectiveness of seven approaches to addressing obesity in American kids, an estimated 17 percent of whom are obese. These ranged from the preventive, such as implementing a nationwide one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks to reduce kids’ consumption of all that liquid candy, to giving obese adolescents increased access to bariatric surgery. Each of the interventions examined by the researchers required complex modeling based on a wide range of factors to extrapolate their likely impact and cost-effectiveness over the course of the next decade (wonky types can feel free to dive into the study itself, which was published in the journal Health Affairs).

The upshot? The national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was predicted to prevent some 576,000 cases of childhood obesity, the greatest number by far. Better yet, such a tax, which would raise the cost of soda and other sugary drinks by about 16 percent, would be eminently cost-effective, as the researchers report: For every dollar spent implementing the tax, the net savings for society in terms of medical costs and the like would be $30.78. Over the course of the next decade, those savings would add up to an estimated $14.2 billion.

Two other obesity-prevention strategies examined by the team proved cost-effective as well. Shocking but true: Food makers are allowed to deduct the cost of their advertising from their corporate taxes, even when they’re marketing junk food to kids. What if the feds eliminated that ridiculous tax deduction? The study estimates nearly 130,000 cases of childhood obesity would be prevented, with a net savings of $32.53 per dollar spent. Full implementation of federal standards governing the foods and beverages sold in schools beyond federally subsidized meals (e.g., snacks sold in vending machines) would prevent 345,000 cases of childhood obesity, at a net savings of $4.56 per dollar spent.

So is an ounce of prevention really worth a pound of cure, as the old adage goes? According to the study, yes. As the authors note, “while many of the preventative interventions in childhood do not provide substantial health care cost savings (because most obesity-related health care costs occur later, in adulthood), childhood interventions have the best chance of substantially reducing obesity prevalence and related mortality and health care costs in the long run.”