The View from A Farr – A new regime to fight obesity?

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The tax on sweetened soft drinks being proposed by New York State Governor David Paterson has brought an angry response from the soft drinks industry. Annette Farr also questions the move by Governor Paterson but believes the change of guard at the White House could provide new impetus in the fight against obesity in the country.

As all eyes turn to Washington DC this week for Barack Obama's Presidential inauguration, let us hope that tackling the nation's obesity problem will be high on his agenda, a commitment that was singularly lacking in Bush's administration.

Forty-nine of the country's most prominent health and medical organisations, along with 44 leading physicians and nutrition experts, have collectively written to Obama urging him to take bold action to reverse the obesity epidemic.

He has been forewarned that unless such action is taken today's children could very well be the first generation of Americans ever to have shorter life spans than their parents.

"What is lacking is not well-conceived ideas for policies and programmes, but a national commitment to wage a comprehensive campaign to prevent and reverse overweight and obesity, a war that should begin in the womb and infancy, extend to schools, then include workplaces, doctors' offices, and the general community," the letter states.

This plea from America's health professionals comes at a time when the number of obese American adults has moved ahead of the total of those merely overweight. According to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics - the most current available - more than 34% of Americans are obese, compared to 32.7% who are overweight. The numbers are based on a survey of 4,356 adults over the age of 20 who take part in a regular government survey of health.

In the state of New York, Governor David Paterson is proposing to tackle his region's obesity problems (one in four New Yorkers under the age of 18 is obese) by imposing an 18% tax on "certain high caloric, low nutritional beverages like non-dietetic soft drinks and sodas". The measure is one of several anti-obesity proposals put forward in his 2009/10 executive state budget.

He maintains that significant price increases should discourage individuals, especially children and teenagers, from drinking high-sugar drinks, and that consumption would drop by 5%. Paterson believes that parallels can be drawn with the success of anti-smoking campaigns.

It comes as no surprise that what has been dubbed the 'obesity tax' has been challenged by the American Beverage Association (ABA). Its president and CEO, Susan Neely, says the new tax is simply "a money grab" that will raise taxes on ordinary families and threaten thousands of jobs across the state. Describing the new measure as "a regressive tax", Neely says it "will hurt most those least able to pay". New York-based employers would be put at a "tremendous disadvantage" to their counterparts in neighbouring states, she adds.

More importantly, the tax will not achieve its supposed prime objective. Singling out one particular product for taxation won't even make a dent in a problem as complex as obesity, the ABA says. "If we are serious about combating obesity we need to comprehensively address the consumption of all foods and beverages and get more physically active as a society. It's unfortunate that some are perpetuating the myth that taxing one product will make a difference in obesity. It won't."

Lizzy Morrill, founder of Fizzy Lizzy, a New York-based producer of 'natural' carbonated drinks, believes Paterson's tax plans are "irrational" because they ignore the issue of nutritional content.

"The proposed tax is completely irrational," Morrill says. "For instance, it imposes no tax on 100% juices such as Tropicana Pure Premium Orange, which has a whopping 165 calories and 33 grams of sugar per 12 ounces, but levies a massive 26% tax on Fizzy Lizzy Tangerine, which contains only 100 calories and 24 grams of sugar per 12-ounce bottle." If an 'obesity tax' is to be passed, she believes it should avoid "mindlessly demonising" carbonated beverages and consider instead calories and sugars on a per ounce basis.

Significantly, however, the ABA reiterates that industry would be prepared to work with lawmakers in measures to combat obesity. "We appreciate the budget challenges facing the state. And we look forward to working with the Governor and lawmakers on solutions that don't add to the burden of the people of New York during these tough economic times," Neely says. And the industry will no doubt be stressing the positive contribution it can make when President Obama's administration turns its attention to the issue.

As well intentioned as it is, Governor Paterson's approach of tackling the obesity crisis by taxing some soft drinks does seem flawed. However, by his own svelte example and exercise regime, Barack Obama could well inspire Americans to begin to take responsibility for their growing waistlines. A comprehensive anti-obesity programme needs to be introduced sooner rather than later. This will not only lead to future healthier generations but also reduce the enormous burden in health care and related costs. After all, it is not rocket science, just the simple equation of calories in versus calories out.

Sectors: Soft drinks, Water

Companies: Tropicana

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