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Yale obesity expert lauds New York tax dedicated to health programs

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Spring


When Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., published an op-ed piece in The New York Times in 1994 pioneering a tax on junk food, he became the focal point of a nasty controversy. Rush Limbaugh lashed out at the notion of the government telling people what to eat, and Brownell accumulated “a very thick file of angry letters. I got things from people saying, ‘We know where you live and we’re going to drive you right into the New Haven Harbor,’ ” Brownell said.

But he stood firm, and this year he has seen a glimmer of hope in New York Gov. David Paterson’s recent proposal for an 18 percent tax on non-diet soda and sugary beverages containing less than 70 percent real fruit juice. Paterson’s plan is the highest tax ever proposed on food, and the estimated $404 million in revenue it could generate in its first year would fund public health programs, including obesity prevention. If the proposal survives a comprehensive legislative and public review of Paterson’s budget, it could be adopted as early as April.

“It’s a whole new kettle of fish right now,” said Brownell, professor of psychology and epidemiology, and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. He cited the troubled economy, mounting research linking soft drink intake to health issues and a growing concern about child obesity. “I think the social situation has changed enough that these taxes are going to happen at some point. Once the door opens, I would expect there will be a flood of others wanting to go through it.”

The tide may be turning already. While many New Yorkers and representatives of the beverage industry are highly critical of Paterson’s tax, Brownell has had calls from advocates in two other states that he said may soon go public with similar proposals.

Over the years, the “fat tax” has also surfaced as a “snack tax,” a “Twinkie tax” and a “miracle tax diet,” but rarely has it gotten off the legislative floor. California, Maine and Maryland all passed taxes of about 4 to 5 percent, and all later repealed them, mostly in response to food industry resistance. Smaller taxes on junk food in more than a dozen other states have been too insignificant to drive down consumption or spark a fight with the food industry, Brownell said.

New York’s proposed soda tax is exactly the kind of food tax Brownell favors, because the potential revenue would be dedicated to health-related programs, and he applauds Paterson’s bold approach. “I give the governor credit for proposing a large tax and not pussy-footing around. It makes sense to tackle this aggressively,” he said.

More than any other food category, sugared beverages have been linked to poor diet, a higher rate of obesity and increased risk of diabetes. Studies also suggest that an 18 percent increase in price would drive consumption down by about 15 to 18 percent. “If consumption of sugared beverages goes down, that could have a whopping effect on public health,” Brownell said.

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