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Watts: Sugar Tax

When I was 15, I bought my cigarettes from a vending machine. Five quarters and out jumped a pack of Marlboro Reds. Smoking gave me a powerful feeling. I felt cool and tough - bucking the authority of my parents.

In college, when our student union went smoke free, smoking became something we had to do outside, huddled together against the cold. And the price kept going up; two, three, four dollars a pack.

Eventually and painfully I quit.

Turns out my personal experiences were part of a long-term campaign to reduce tobacco use in the US through a combination of price increases and public policies – a fifty year effort that today is heralded as a great public health success. No more vending machines and advertising aimed at kids. The price of a pack is now nearly ten dollars, and smoking rates have been reduced by more than two-thirds.

Tobacco industry arguments of individual freedom - adults should be able to make their own choices - the so-called nanny state – were rejected as we learned about the purposeful targeting of children, the addictive qualities of nicotine and the impacts of second-hand smoke.

At 15, I’d been a particular focus of the industry - the replacement smoker - needed to take the place of the four hundred thousand who died each year of tobacco related disease.

Some of the same arguments are now playing out in the debate about increasing taxes on sugar sweetened beverages – despite evidence that the added sugar in these drinks is a leading contributor to America’s obesity epidemic.

Efforts to raise taxes on these products, thus incentivizing consumers to choose lower-sugar options, have been met by strong opposition from the soda industry. Here in Vermont, more money was spent opposing a soda tax than on any other recent public policy initiative.

But in Berkeley, California, where the city increased taxes on sugary beverages by a penny an ounce, consumption is down sharply. And six more cities have just voted to seek both the revenues and the public health benefits.

We spend more than one hundred and ninety billion dollars each year on obesity related diseases. Tax increases on sugary beverages – in combination with other measures – work. And everyone benefits.

Someday, I hope we’ll look back on the effort to curb consumption of sugary beverages as another public health success. I just hope it doesn’t take fifty years.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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