The Flex Diet – It Bends, So You Don't Break.

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As we approach mid-term elections, one of many issues facing voters is “how much government is too much government.” People typically think about this in terms of military spending, financial bail-outs, social programs, and ultimately, the taxes that will pay for all of the above.

While many voters will just hold the party line, I think we need some more debate regarding the issue of “lifestyle taxes.” As you know, this isn’t a new concept — smokers will tell you that the cost of cigarettes has skyrocketed over the past fifteen years. But as recent emphasis on the obesity epidemic has renewed our interests in healthier lifestyle choices, many have suggested that taxing highly processed foods or higher calorie foods with little nutritional value might be a good next step. The government, in effect, could enforce a pricing structure which would essentially penalize certain food choices, with the goal of ultimately changing behavior. Enter the soda tax.

So what’s the next step? There are lots of strong opinions on either side. Those in favor emphasize the staggering impact of obesity on the health care system and our economy and the need to do something more than we are currently. Those against it go back to the role of government and concerns that this is a slippery slope to a Big Brother that we wouldn’t want to have, looking over our shoulders and telling us how to live our lives.

Interestingly, we’re not still hearing the same debate about cigarette taxes. Why? People finally seem to understand that smoking causes heart attacks, emphysema, lung cancer and early death. People also recognize that laws preventing smoking in restaurants and bars as well as pricier cigarettes are felt to be playing a role in a decreased prevalence of smoking. In effect, we have evidence that the policies are working. Not working perfectly — and not everyone likes them — but they seem to be working. And it’s hard for either side of the aisle to take away a policy that seems to be effective.

One of the challenges with the current soda tax proposals is that we just don’t have the evidence we need to put them into wide effect. At the recent Obesity Society meeting in San Diego, researchers presented several mathematical models examining how a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (i.e. soda) would impact behavior, and ultimately the obesity problem. One study suggested that taxing soda by about 20 percent would be associated with a 20 percent reduction in excess gain in body mass index among children.

Another study found that a penny-per-ounce tax (adding about a quarter to the price of your bottle of soda) could decrease consumption by close to 25 percent, thereby reducing health care costs by $50 billion in ten years, and generating $150 billion in revenue over the same time frame. That money that could be invested in fighting obesity by expanding educational programs or even subsidizing the costs of more expensive, but healthier foods.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? True, a computer model won’t be enough to convince a lot of people. But at least the beverage corporations are listening — the American Beverage Association is reportedly spending close to ten times what it was five years ago in lobbying efforts to avoid these types of taxing proposals from gaining too much momentum.

But what can we learn in the meantime? Probably not much if we don’t have data. It’s time to test the tax. Randomize two different communities to different prices and see how behaviors change. If they don’t, then we’re right back where we started. But if they do… then maybe it’s time to have some Soda Party rallies of our own.