Campaign Against ‘Junk Drinks’ Will Grow, Experts Predict

Two unrelated reports released last week may foreshadow new health care policy in California. Maybe not this year and maybe not statewide at first, but changes are coming, policy experts predict.

According to a new Field Poll, most Californians would support a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages if the money were used to improve school nutrition and physical activity.

A separate report from UC-San Francisco indicates that California’s tobacco prevention program saved $134 billion in health care costs over a 20-year period.

Do those two studies, considered together, indicate the potential for a widespread, sustained effort to curb the consumption of soda and other sugary drinks similar to the long campaign against tobacco?

“Yes,” said Daniel Zingale, a senior vice president at the California Endowment.

“Those concerned about the physical and fiscal health of California are zeroing in on the connection between rising medical costs and increased consumption of junk drinks,” Zingale said.

“The science now makes a direct connection between junk drinks and California’s obesity epidemic, which is driving spending on medical treatment up and productivity down,” he added.

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond City Council member and leader of a failed attempt last fall to establish a soda tax in Richmond, agreed.

“I think we’re definitely headed in that direction, and I think we’ll close the gap a lot quicker than we did in the tobacco wars,” Ritterman said.

Soda, Tobacco Reports Unrelated

The timing of the release of a Field Poll on soda taxes and UC-San Francisco research on the state’s anti-tobacco campaign was not intentional, and the two efforts are not related. But the relationship between the two in terms of policy is undeniable.

“I think there’s no question there are similarities between what happened with tobacco decades ago and what’s happening with soda now,” said Ritterman, a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente.

“Big soda is following the lead of big tobacco and putting lots of money and pressure up against taxes, but the data is piling up on the medical side. These sodas really are a health hazard and eventually we’re going to come to the realization — like we did with tobacco — that something has to be done to change our habits,” he said.

Soda taxes are not a new idea. State Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) introduced a bill in the California Legislature two years ago that would have levied a one-cent tax for each ounce of sugar-sweetened beverage sold in the state. AB 669 stalled in the face of well-financed opposition from the soda industry.

Last fall, voters in two California cities — Richmond in the Bay Area and El Monte in Southern California — rejected local soda tax proposals.

But popular sentiment, according to last week’s Field Poll, may be shifting.

According to the poll commissioned by the California Endowment, 68% of voters said they would support a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages if the revenue were used to improve school nutrition and physical activity programs.

In addition, 75% of respondents said regularly drinking sugar-sweetened sodas increases the chances of becoming overweight.

In the tobacco study released last week, UC-San Francisco researchers determined that for each dollar spent on California’s anti-tobacco initiative, health care spending in the state decreased by about $56. The state’s campaign to reduce smoking cost $2.4 billion over almost 20 years and reduced health care spending by $134 billion, according to the study.

A 2009 report by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy estimated that the economic cost of obesity in California was $41 billion a year.

What’s Next?

Ritterman, who said the problem is national in scope and should ultimately be dealt with at the federal level, said there are strategies being discussed to pursue more local soda taxes in California.

“There are several of us who think that it might make more sense to do more local efforts before trying for statewide or national changes,” Ritterman said. “I think we’ll get there eventually, but the way we get there probably won’t be a straight line.”

Monning, according to a spokesperson, has not decided about reintroducing the soda tax bill.

Zingale, California’s first director of the state’s Department of Managed Health Care when it was formed 13 years ago, said it’s clear the soda industry is concerned.

“The soda industry’s disproportional and unprecedented spending to defeat ballot measures in Richmond and El Monte suggests they are worried about larger-scale efforts to prioritize public health over junk drink profits,” Zingale said.

“As was the case with tobacco, public awareness and public policies will follow the science that now proves junk drinks are the major culprit in the twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes,” he added.

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