Tax soft drinks to fight obesity, U.S. experts say

* Cent tax per ounce could cut consumption by 10 percent

* Cutting caloric intake could lower obesity levels

* Industry groups say soda taxes don't work

WASHINGTON, Sept 16 (Reuters) - More U.S. health experts called for taxing sweetened soft drinks on Wednesday, saying such taxes could fight obesity and be used to fund public health efforts.

New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert at Yale University in Connecticut and others said the current taxes do not go far enough.

"We propose an excise tax of one percent per ounce for any beverages that have any added caloric sweetener," they wrote in their proposal, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Much as taxes on tobacco products are routine at both state and federal levels because they generate revenue and they confer a public health benefit with respect to smoking rates, we believe that taxes on beverages that help drive the obesity epidemic should and will become routine."

They said studies have shown taxes could cut consumption just enough -- by about 1 gram of sugar per ounce.

"A tax of one cent per ounce of beverage would increase the cost of a 20-ounce soft drink by 15 to 20 percent." They estimate that would lead to a 10 percent drop in consumption, or enough to affect weight.

"A consumer who drinks a conventional soft drink (20 ounces or 591 millilitres) every day and switches to a beverage below this threshold would consume approximately 174 fewer calories each day," they wrote.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in December that a tax of three cents on every 12-ounce (355-millilitre) can of soda could raise $50 billion over 10 years.

Brownell called for such a tax in April along with Farley's predecessor, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who became director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June.

"Currently, 33 states have sales taxes on soft drinks (mean tax rate 5.2 percent), but the taxes are too small to affect consumption and the revenues are not earmarked for programs related to health," Brownell, Farley and the others wrote.


They noted that people are drinking more sweet drinks and the obesity rate is surging. "In Mexico, intake of sugar-sweetened drinks doubled between 1999 and 2006 in all age groups," they wrote.

"Reducing caloric intake by 1 percent to 2 percent per year would have a marked impact on health in all age groups."

The American Heart Association weighed in on the issue last month, recommending that Americans cut back dramatically on sugar and singling out soft drinks as the top source of "discretionary" sugar calories.

The beverage industry objected.

"We agree that obesity is a serious public health issue, but the solution put forth by these researchers simply won't work. Reducing obesity will only be addressed through comprehensive solutions," Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer for the American Beverage Association, said in a statement.

"Importantly, taxes will not teach our children how to live a healthy lifestyle."

The researchers had anticipated this argument.

"Seat belt legislation and tobacco taxation do not eliminate traffic accidents and heart disease but are nevertheless sound policies," they wrote.

"Opposition to a tax by the beverage industry is to be expected," they added.

An industry group called Americans Against Food Taxes, backed by juice maker Welch's, soft drink maker PepsiCo Inc


, the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, McDonald's Corp


and Burger King Holdings Inc


, is also fighting such a tax.

Reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao