Tax junk food, drinks to fight child obesity: report

WASHINGTON Tue Sep 1, 2009 12:23am EDT

A menu for fried chicken and french fries is displayed on a wall at a fast food restaurant in New York, October 30, 2006. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

A menu for fried chicken and french fries is displayed on a wall at a fast food restaurant in New York, October 30, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A strongly worded report on child obesity released on Tuesday recommends that state and local governments tax junk food and soft drinks, give tax breaks to grocery stores that open in blighted neighborhoods and build bike trails.

The report from the independent Institute of Medicine and National Research Council also suggests that governments limit television and video games in after-school programs, require restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus and open school playgrounds and athletic fields to communities.

"Childhood obesity poses a serious threat to health in the United States," it reads. The problem cannot be solved by the federal government and communities need to act, it adds.

"This is not a report that says 'this is what every community should do.' This is a menu of options," Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, who chaired the panel that wrote the report, said in a telephone interview.

Obesity rates are soaring among U.S. children, and along with them rates of early heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

"The prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled in just three decades," the report reads. Nearly 18 percent of U.S. adolescents are obese.

While the food and restaurant industry cites personal choice and a lack of exercise, many reports have shown that unhealthy food is cheaper, more readily available and more heavily marketed than more healthful foods.

Last week, the American Heart Association took on the $115 billion soft drink industry, saying the drinks are the No. 1 source of added sugars in the American diet.

The American Beverage Association, representing companies including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Co and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc, says sugar-sweetened drinks do not pose a particular health risk.

USING TAXES

Taxes work, said the experts on the panel, commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The research around tobacco has shown that large increases in taxes on cigarettes has been the single most effective policy to reduce tobacco use," said Mary Story, a dietitian and professor at the University of Minnesota.

"A 10 percent increase in the price of a sugar-sweetened beverage could reduce consumption by 8 to 10 percent."

Most states do not use this money to fund obesity fighting efforts but they could, she said.

The report also recommends building sidewalks, ensuring schools have water fountains available so students do not have to use vending machines and changing public transport routes so people can reach grocery stores.

It cites communities that have encouraged grocery stores to build in neighborhoods designated as "food deserts," or that have helped corner stores add fresh fruits and vegetables to shelves now loaded with soft drinks and snacks.

Some communities could divert money designated for crime, if that would be politically easier, it suggests. "For example, after-school recreation programs implemented to increase physical activity with obesity prevention in mind can help meet crime prevention goals by reducing opportunities for youth to be victims or perpetrators of crime," the report reads.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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