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Politically Thinking: Education is best in war on obesity

Childhood obesity is a growing public health problem in the United States. More than one-third of all children and adolescents in America are estimated to be overweight or obese, and thus at greater risk for developing heart disease and diabetes later in their lives. Childhood obesity rates in Vermont, at about 25 percent, are somewhat lower than in the nation as a whole.
Last week, Rep. George Till, M.D., D-Jericho, introduced a bill in the Vermont House that would impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Naturally sweetened fruit juices, milk and diet drinks would be tax-exempt, but most sweet beverages would cost 10 to 15 cents more per serving if the tax were enacted. Dr. Till proposes to use the revenue raised by the tax to fund Medicaid reimbursements to dentists who serve children, and for educational programs directed toward dental health and nutrition.
This bill will probably not be enacted by the Legislature. Although it will be supported by the Vermont Dental Society and some state agencies, such as the Department of Health, it will be opposed by the Vermont Grocers Association, an influential organization in Montpelier. The beverage tax will likely be opposed by Gov. Shumlin. On sales tax issues, the governor reflects the views of his constituents in Windham County, where retailers are very concerned about the impact of no-tax New Hampshire on their business.
An increasing number of states are considering taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages as a way of combating obesity, in adults as well as in children. Research compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation indicates that taxes at the level proposed by Till’s bill may have only a small impact on the consumption of sugary beverages. A 10 percent increase in the price is estimated to reduce consumption by 8 to 11 percent.
Cigarette taxes in many states now make up 30 to 40 percent of the price of the product. Taxes of this magnitude have definitely resulted in lower smoking rates. For sugary beverage taxes to have a similar impact, they would need to be about 50 cents per serving, rather than the 10 to 15 cents contemplated by Rep. Till’s bill. Public opinion is unlikely to support beverage taxes at this amount.
Educational programs focused on good nutrition and physical activity are more likely to have positive impacts on childhood obesity than beverage taxes. The public is also more likely to support these programs than tax increases. Several good models of such programs exist, both nationally and locally.
The National Football League’s “Play 60” initiative is a national youth health and fitness campaign focused on increasing the wellness of children by encouraging them to be active for an hour a day. Working with local school partners, “Play 60” supports both in-school and after-school programs, ranging from more frequent physical education classes during the school day to walk-to-school clubs that encourage both children and their parents to travel to and from school on foot rather than by car.
Several school districts in Vermont have partnered with the state’s farm-to-plate program to improve school lunches by including nutritious, locally sourced foods on the menu. For example, the Ferrisburgh Central School uses a school garden and connections with local farmers to provide apples, whole wheat flour and a range of vegetables to the school cafeteria. Also, the Vermont Agriculture Department and Vermont beef farmers are part of the New England Beef-to-Institution Initiative, which encourages school lunch programs to use locally raised, grass-fed ground beef for hamburgers and other menu items.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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