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Bob Moon: The weight of the world rests upon the United Nations, as the General Assembly continues its meetings in New York. So far, we’ve heard speeches on the the Arab Spring and the global economy.
But there are other pressing topics getting attention — such as soda pop. More than that, of course: What should the U.N.’s response be to the obesity epidemic? Costly health consequences are on the rise, in countries rich and poor.
Commentator Raj Patel says there’s a way to curb the crisis, but it requires a coordinated push.
Raj Patel: Bigger isn’t always better. By 2030, half of Americans won’t just be overweight, but obese. By then, nearly a fifth our health care dollars will be spent treating the diseases that come with being bigger. Our lifestyles — rich in fat, sugar and inactivity — are creating a debt that will become the planet’s most expensive public health issue.
So what to do? One battle centers on how to make us better eaters, and especially, better drinkers. Half of the sugar in U.S. diets comes from sweetened beverages. Advocates of what gets called a soda tax look like they’ve got a justification for their case. Tax the sugar in the drink and the consumption goes down, right? Well yes, but a study from Northwestern University recently found that overweight people prefer diet drinks. You can almost hear the soda industry snickering.
But this ought not make us give up on the idea of taxation in the name of public health. Think about tobacco. A dollar tax on a pack of cigarettes makes some people smoke less, but that’s not the only thing that we’ve done to curb smoking. We have changed regulation to target not just cigarettes, but anything containing tobacco. We limited marketing to children. We’ve confronted the companies who profit from tobacco with a coherent public health push, and made them pay for their ill-gotten gains.
So why can’t taxes together with other ideas work with sugar? One in three kids born in America today will develop some form of diabetes, one in two kids of color. A meaningful soda tax — say a penny per ounce on sugary drinks — is an important part of a bigger policy strategy. We can, for example, take back the billions we spend subsidizing commodity and processed food production, and gives it to those most harmed by these products. This isn’t the nanny state — as much as it is a response to the wild excesses of the market. Just leveling the playing field back away from big food, so we’ll have fewer big people.