In support of the “Bittman tax” – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last year, DC City Councilwoman Mary Cheh introduced legislation to place a one-penny tax on sugary drinks sold in the District.  NCL supported Cheh’s bill, which passed the DC City Council unanimously. The proceeds from the tax would have been directed to fighting obesity in the District.  The sugar lobby went all out to defeat the bill, throwing millions of dollars into ads on billboards, television and radio. I even received a robo call message on my home answering machine warning me about this “dangerous” legislation. This industry onslaught succeeded in killing the bill. The defeat occurred despite these facts:

  • 43% of students enrolled in DC public schools are overweight or obese — one of the highest rates in the nation.
  • The District government spends more than $400 million annually to treat obesity.
  • For children, each extra can or glass of sugar-sweetened beverage consumed per day increases their chance of becoming obese by 60 percent
  • Of the 278 additional calories Americans consumed on average, per day between 1977 and 2001, more than 40% came from sugary drinks.

In a recent New York Times article, Mark Bittman, the food writer and chef, proposes something similar to Cheh’s legislation: a 20% increase in the price of sugary drinks, which would cause a 20% decrease in consumption, which would prevent about one and half million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving an estimated $30 billion.

His proposal makes a lot of sense to me. The average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks annually, including diet drinks. The Bittman tax would add $1.44 cents to a six-pack of Pepsi. That money would be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonable greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit. Bittman argues that the government should play a much stronger role in public health. He’s right. This country is facing a public health crisis, with rapidly rising rates of obesity among adults and sadly, children. Why not make it more expensive to consume the stuff that’s nutritionally bereft and use those funds to subsidize the provision of healthy foods, especially in those communities where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find? The only thing stopping us is the junk food lobby, but in time, a strong enough push from a groundswell of Americans who are convinced we need to take strong steps to reverse obesity rates – and the diseases that rise – can overcome even that junk food juggernaut.