Soda tax is no sure cure for childhood obesity

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Print this page by Robert Powell

The video shows dozens of children playing “Red Rover” and singing “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” It is a summer scene that took place nearly 50 years ago. 

The video is adapted from a 15-minute home movie taken in 1960 at a vacation Bible school. The First Baptist Church in my hometown, Rome, Ga., found the movie and posted it on its Web site as part of preparations for its 175th anniversary.

As the film moves from a church classroom to a rolling lawn outside, it offers quick glimpses of childhood friends and my mother, who was one of the teachers. You can tell the movie’s age by the clothes (all of the girls wear dresses) and the tail fins on the cars. But one other big difference becomes evident as more and more kids scamper across the frame — not a single one is overweight.

I don’t think of 1960 as being a particularly health-conscious time. More than half of American men smoked, and cholesterol was not a common term.

But it also was not a time when childhood obesity was a public health concern. Today it is a virtual epidemic.

In Virginia, 31 percent of children 10 to 17 were obese or overweight in 2007. That is slightly below the national average, but it is not a statistic that anyone should be proud of.

Unfortunately, studies suggest that childhood obesity will get worse in coming years, growing to nearly half of the children in North and South America and 38 percent of the children in Europe.

The situation is alarming because obesity is not something that children simply outgrow. Overweight kids tend to become overweight adults with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other serious ailments.

When children become the victims of any scourge, the natural instinct is identify a villain. In this case, the soft drink industry has been given the role of Snidely Whiplash.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine calls for a 1-cent federal tax on every once of soda and other sweetened drinks. Tax advocates believe that the higher cost of sodas would discourage children (and adults) from consuming needless calories.

So far Congress and the Obama administration have not taken the bait. No current proposal for health care reform includes a soda tax.

Thirty-three states (but not Virginia) already impose some tax on soft drinks. But Trevor Butterworth, the editor of STATS.org, an affiliate of George Mason University, says recent studies have found these taxes have no effect in curbing obesity. Butterworth notes in a column for Forbes.com that, faced with tax-inflated soda prices, kids simply switch to higher-calorie whole milk and other sweetened drinks.

Slapping a tax on soft drinks suggests there is an easy answer to the problem. There isn’t. The most effective steps appear to taking place in the home rather than in the statehouse. Common suggestions include starting a weight management program, planning meals, controlling portions — and eating meals together as a family instead grabbing a bite while watching TV. Now there’s a radical idea left over from 1960.

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