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

Feb 7, 2012

Sugar may be our favorite pick-me-up. I know I sometimes get the 4 p.m. urge for peanut M&Ms. But how much is too much?

The American Heart Association says women should not have more than 6 teaspoons, or 30 grams, a day, which is about 100 calories of added sugar (excluding fruit). And men should try not to exceed 9 teaspoons, or 45 grams.

But a lot of us are eating way more.

"The bottom line is our sugar consumption has gone through the roof," says Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. He says the typical American is eating nearly 450 calories of added sugar everyday.

In a commentary published in Nature, Lustig and his colleagues argued that this excessive consumption is linked to an increase in chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, metabolic disorder, heart disease as well as obesity. So, Lustig argues, we need to cut way back — by about two-thirds — on the amount of sugar we consume.

"That's a lot" to cut, he acknowledges. "And it can't be done unless there's a public health intervention of some sort."

A tax proposal on the table in Massachusetts could discourage sugar consumption a bit by making sugary foods more expensive.

Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed extending the state's 6.5 percent sales tax to include candy, soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks. (Currently, the tax law exempts all food.) The revenue generated would be used to pay for nutrition education and health promotion programs.

It's a proposal people may not have expected from a governor who once worked for Coca-Cola.

"Mind you, I worked in the soda-pop business," Patrick says. "So I know the arguments on the other side." But he says he thinks the proposal is gaining support. "It's popular," he says. "I hope the Legislature takes it up and acts on it this time."

A poll in the state found two-thirds of Massachusetts voters would support the tax on soft drinks and candy if the revenue were used to support programs that fight childhood obesity or other educational initiatives.

"People are willing to look at these things," says Alex Zaroulis, a spokeswoman with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance,
"because they understand that the cost of treating diabetes and other [chronic conditions] that can be impacted by unhealthy diet is having a serious impact on the state's finances."

Outside Massachusetts, a national survey found that a majority of taxpayers oppose the idea of a "sin tax" on soda and candy. According to a blog post from the American Beverage Association, people see these tax proposals as a "money grab" to fund more government.

"Taxes don't make people healthy," the ABA's Chris Gindlesperger told us.

"What helps people get to a place where they're leading a more healthy lifestyle is educating them on how to balance the calories they consume with the calories they expend through physical activity," he says.

The ABA also opposes a bill proposed in the Florida Legislature that would restrict the use of food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — to buy soda, sugary treats or other unhealthy foods.

"Should we give hungry kids food? Absolutely," says Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms, who sponsored the bill. "But I don't think the goal is to provide Oreos and Mountain Dew." She says this is a misuse of public assistance dollars.

Storms says she's not suggesting that the government should dictate what we can have in our pantries. "I'm not telling people what they can eat," she says. They're free to eat chips and soda, she argues, on their own dime.

Storms says she's been visited by a steady stream of lobbyists from the snack food industry and beverage industries who are strongly opposed to her bill. They argue there's no fair way to implement it. For instance, if a food has a little bit of sugar, is it off the list for food stamp recipients? It's unclear.

"With tens of of thousands of items in stores, it's extremely hard for a grocer to separate out what's covered by the program and not covered under these rules," says Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit anti-hunger organization Food Research and Action Center. Industry groups have aligned with FRAC in their opposition to Storms' bill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied New York's request to enact similar limits on food stamp purchases. And as my colleague Scott Hensley reported, the state of Minnesota tried and failed as well.

Sen. Storm's Florida bill is scheduled to come before a state Senate Budget Committee today.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.