Three out of five California voters would support a special tax on soda and soft drinks to fight childhood obesity, according to a new Field Poll.
New data collected as part of the Field-The California Endowment Childhood Obesity Prevention Survey found that 48% of participants cited unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise as the primary health concern facing children -- an increase from 35% in 2003.
This opinion crossed all major segments of the voter population, including voters in all parties and across all demographic and regional subdivisions, although parents with children under age 18 were among the most likely to feel this way. The researchers found that 62% of voters would support a tax on soda as one way to combat the fat-kid issue. Of that 62%, 45% support the idea "strongly."
In addition, 68% think that a comprehensive program to prevent childhood obesity would be worth it even if it increased government spending by billions of dollars. (Really? Billions? Did you all think that one through?)
"Californians understand that health happens in schools, in neighborhoods, and with prevention. Regardless of age, ethnicity, income or political ideology, they recognize that investments in prevention save money over the long run. And Californians want action now," said Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment -- a private, statewide health foundation -- in a press release. "With so many of our children at risk for obesity and obesity-related illness, they agree we cannot afford to wait. I hope our state's leaders heed the wisdom of their constituents."
In a New York Times editorial last July, Mark Bittman agreed with the premise, saying: "Tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available."
According to Bittman, the average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks annually (that does not include noncarbonated sweetened beverages, which add up to at least 17 gallons a person per year).
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"A study by Y. Claire Wang, an assistant professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, predicted that a penny tax per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York State would save $3 billion in health care costs over the course of a decade, prevent something like 37,000 cases of diabetes and bring in $1 billion annually," Bittman wrote. "A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion." Under Bittman's plan, diet sodas would be exempt from the tax--despite some studies finding they are even more unhealthful than the sugary stuff.
Which brings us to the larger question of how government will decide what is bad for us to consume. Remember, this is the same government that thought "pink slime" was just fine for us to eat and doesn't regulate arsenic levels in our food. So, would sweetened iced tea be considered bad? What about chocolate milk? Juice is loaded with sugar--would it be taxed too? Would kids selling lemonade at stands have to include an excise tax in the price?
It's always been a dubious idea to tax beverages in America. If a soda tax becomes law in California, watch out for citizens dumping bottles of Coke into Long Beach Harbor and VitaminWater into San Francisco Bay.
Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.