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UK experts: Tax soda to fight obesity epidemic
AP | May 16, 2012, 11.03AM IST
Read more:united nations|unemployment|Tufts University|the rest|The National|The move|Taxation|Tax soda|Oxford university|Obesity|Institute of Medicine|heart|forum|David Cameron
LONDON: Three health experts at Oxford University are calling for a hefty tax on soda _ as much as 20 percent _ which they say could help trim waistlines in the UK, Europe's fattest nation.
The researchers made their pitch after reviewing other studies on the effects of soda taxes. Their analysis was published online Tuesday in the journal, BMJ.
But at a time when Britain is already reeling from high taxes and rising unemployment, it's unclear whether the unpopular coalition government would even propose such a tax.
One-quarter of all Britons are obese and estimates suggest that could jump to half by 2030.
``We've tried other measures to reduce obesity and they haven't worked,'' said Mike Rayner, director of the British Heart Foundation research group at Oxford University, who led the review. ``We need more drastic and innovative measures.''
Rayner and colleagues examined previous analyses of soft drink taxes, including in several U.S. states and Ireland. They found those regions have mostly introduced modest taxes of 1 to 8 percent, which may have been too low to affect people's drinking habits.
They also analyzed small studies in U.S. cafeterias that charged higher prices for pop and sweetened beverages, which saw their sales dip after a 35 percent price hike was introduced. Some papers showed that a tax on soda could reduce obesity by 3.5 percent in the U.S., where just last week that nation's Institute of Medicine called for local communities to consider a tax on sugary sodas. About one-third of Americans are obese.
A modeling study found that a fat tax on unhealthy foods in Britain could reduce heart disease by up to 3 percent, resulting in 900 to 2,700 fewer deaths a year.
Rayner said taxes on sweetened or carbonated drinks were a logical extension of policies that tax other unhealthy products, like tobacco and alcohol. He said the government should have a consultation on how such taxes might be enforced. Elsewhere in Europe, France taxes sweetened drinks, Denmark taxes anything with saturated fat, and Norway taxes sugar and chocolate.
On Monday, Scotland announced it wants to set a minimum price of 50 pence (80 cents) per unit of alcohol, meaning an average bottle of wine could not cost less than about 4.70 pounds ($7.55). The rest of the U.K. may follow suit, after Prime Minister David Cameron declared binge drinking ``a scandal'' and that the government will consider hiking alcohol prices.
Amid Britain's continuing financial crisis, however, officials might not have the stomach to introduce another unpopular tax. In March, the government slapped a 20 percent tax on the Cornish pasty, a cheap meat pie. Critics condemned the move as an attack on the eating habits of the working class, and shares in one of the country's biggest bakeries selling the treats slumped.
Still, Cameron has previously said the UK should consider taxing unhealthy foods, and the United Nations agreed such measures should be considered.
Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said a 20 percent tax on pop would be a good idea, though he said it would take a few years before there's evidence from similar taxes to see if it actually lowers obesity levels. ``Taxation at such levels would be a reminder to manufacturers to reformulate,'' he said.
Other experts said it wasn't clear whether such taxes actually encourage people to make healthier choices. ``It is important to make sure that whatever efforts are made to decrease pop consumption, they don't drive people to choose other beverages that contain a similar number of calories, (like) fruit juice,'' said Alice Lichtenstein, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.
Although fruit juice may sound like a healthier option, it's high in sugar and calories, too.
Rayner agreed more studies were needed but was optimistic a soda tax would work. ``It's not like you're going to have a cheeseburger instead of a soft drink with the money you've saved on tax,'' he said. ``You'll probably have something unsweetened, like water or milk.''
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