Question of the Week

April 13, 2009


Especially in difficult financial times, raising taxes and, in doing so, raising prices can influence people's buying habits.

"When the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes went up almost threefold, the American Cancer Society's national smoking quitline had around 13 times more calls than on a normal day."

When these financial incentives show promise for helping people stop unhealthy habits, there are those who want to increase taxes on more than just tobacco products. While the act of raising taxes can increase costs enough to get some people to change their habits, others see the taxes as a way to raise money to help fight the health problems that these unhealthy habits are contributing to.

"A tax on sugary soft drinks would result in health benefits no matter how the revenue from the tax would be used, ... but the popularity of such a tax, [New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden and Yale University professor Kelly Brownell], conclude, would increase if the proceeds were dedicated to childhood obesity prevention programs, including media campaigns, physical activity facilities and programs, and more-healthful food options in schools. One poll showed that 52 percent of New York residents said they supported a 'soda tax,' and that figure increased to 72 percent when they were told that the money raised from such a tax would be used to help prevent obesity. A tax of one penny per ounce could decrease the intake of sugary beverages by more than 10 percent and generate revenue of $1.2 billion in New York State alone, Frieden and Brownell predict."

While the current tax idea is being floated as a tax on sugary soft drinks, it is not just the sugar (nor is it just the soft drinks) that are contributing to the rise in obesity rates.

"People who drink diet soft drinks don't lose weight. In fact, they gain weight, a new study shows. The findings come from eight years of data collected by Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio. Fowler reported the data at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association in San Diego. 'What didn't surprise us was that total soft drink use was linked to overweight and obesity,' Fowler tells WebMD. 'What was surprising was when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher.' In fact, when the researchers took a closer look at their data, they found that nearly all the obesity risk from soft drinks came from diet sodas. 'There was a 41% increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day,' Fowler says. ... For regular soft-drink drinkers, the risk of becoming overweight or obese was:

  • 26% for up to 1/2 can each day
  • 32.8% for 1 to 2 cans each day
  • 47.2% for more than 2 cans each day.
For diet soft-drink drinkers, the risk of becoming overweight or obese was:

While the above statistics can make it easy to vilify soft drinks, they are not the only drinks that are contributing to the excess consumption of calories.

Many people don't consider fast food to be the healthiest option, but they also may not realize that it is not just the food that can lead to hidden excess calories.

The Baskin Robbins website describes one of it's shakes as:
"Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and Peanut Butter'n Chocolate ice creams with Reese's Peanut Butter Sauce, hot fudge, whipped cream and chopped Reese's Peanut Butter Cups."

Many people order a shake with their meal as their drink option. While the above shake is likely to register with some as more of a dessert than a drink, others may classify it as both -- not realizing that a small (16 oz.) Reese's shake contains more calories and fat than they should be consuming for their entire meal.

According the the information listed at the above Baskin Robbins site, A small Reese's shake contains over 950 calories and 62 grams of fat (62g is over 95% of the amount of fat that an average adult should consume in a day). The medium (24 oz.) contains 1430 calories and 93 grams of fat (93g is 143% of the amount of fat that an average adult should consume in a day). For over 1900 calories and 124 grams of fat (over 190% of what should be an average adult's fat intake for the day), the large (32 oz.) size is available.

Even those who realize that the shake is not the healthiest option may not realize how much it can add to their daily caloric and fat intake. Not all shakes are this unhealthy, and not everyone has them with a meal (as opposed to instead of a meal). Either way, limiting the amount of high calorie foods (and drinks) that one consumes can drastically improve someone's chances of reaching or maintaining a healthy weight.

"Replacing sugar-laden drinks with water has a dramatic impact on the amount of calories kids consume and may help in the fight against childhood obesity, researchers report. 'The key observation is that when kids substitute sugar-sweetened beverages with water, there is a significant decline in total energy intake without any compensatory increase in the consumption of other beverages or food,' Dr. Y. Claire Wang from Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in New York, told Reuters Health. Since kids consume a large amount of these 'empty calories' nowadays (10 to 15 percent of their daily intake), she added, substituting calorie-free beverages 'is a simple and effective way of eliminating the excess calories while improving the diet quality.' Sugar-sweetened beverages 'should be viewed as treats, not necessities, and water is a perfect substitute for the purpose of thirst-quenching,' Wang said."

Not everyone is going to want water, but it is the healthiest option for those who are thirsty, or those who just want something to sip throughout the day. Adding a lemon wedge or other small amount of flavoring can help for those who may not be used to (or may not like) the taste of water, but be careful of fruit juice and fruit drinks (which not only add flavor, but often add surprising amounts of sugar and calories).

"Australian schoolchildren who drink fruit juices and fruit drinks are more likely to be overweight or obese than those who don't, Deakin researchers have found. In a study of children aged four to 12 years from the Barwon South Western region researchers Andrea Sanigorski, Colin Bell and Boyd Swinburn from the University's Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences found that children who had drank more than two glasses (500ml) of fruit juice/drink per day were more likely to be overweight or obese. 'These odds increased as the amounts of fruit juice/drink consumed increased,' Dr Sanigorski said. ... Dr Sanigorski said the study's findings were consistent with those found in children in the United States and the United Kingdom."

Questions of the Week:
How can consumers be educated so that they will know how to incorporate sodas, juices, and dessert drinks into their diets in a balanced way? What role should taxes play in influencing consumer choices? If a tax were to be implemented on beverages, what do you think should be taxed, and how would you spend the money that was collected?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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