Healthy Children - August 2012


Elissa Bassler: A Solution for the Obesity Epidemic

If we are serious about solving the American obesity epidemic, we must start with the biggest culprits — sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and other beverages that are artificially loaded with sugar. Evidence consistently points to sugar-loaded drinks triggering increased obesity rates. In fact, these unhealthy beverages can account for an estimated 20 percent to 40 percent of all weight gained by Americans between 1997 and 2007.

Of course, we recognize that obesity is a super-sized problem triggered by a complex array of factors. There is no silver bullet solution to the complex, multifaceted issue of obesity. Nonetheless, sugary drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet and the only type of food or beverage that scientific research has directly linked to obesity.

Scientific evidence also links sugar-loaded drinks to diabetes, gout, some forms of cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, dental problems, and hypertension. This is why communities across the United States are taking steps to address consumption of sugar-loaded beverages — because they are major contributors to obesity and the obesity-related chronic diseases that are weighing down our economy and the health-care system.

There is no doubt that sugar-loaded drinks are one of the leading contributors to obesity, which is what makes reducing consumption of sugary drinks such a critical public health issue. Adults who drink just one sugar-loaded drink a day increase the likelihood that they will be overweight or obese by 27 percent. A child’s risk of obesity increases 60 percent with every additional daily serving of sugary beverages. In recent decades, per capita intake of sugar-loaded drinks has doubled in the United States across all age groups and since the mid-90s children have been getting more calories from sugary beverages than from milk. There is no question that individuals must make the right choices, as a recent SJ-R editorial points out. But equally certain is that communities, nonprofits, businesses and government also must play a role. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine made reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption its first recommendation on improving nutrition, and specifically called for implementing excise taxes on sugar-loaded drinks to create a price incentive for consumers to choose healthier options.

The Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity has developed an Obesity Action Roadmap for addressing this multi-faceted issue. Among many approaches, the Roadmap calls for a fund that would help schools, communities, businesses and health-care providers implement proven strategies to combat the obesity epidemic, funded by a tax on sugar-loaded drinks. Such a tax-financed fund would support better food and physical education in schools, bike lanes and jogging trails, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved communities, and increasing public safety in order to promote physical activity. A recent University of Illinois report also showed that a penny-per-ounce tax would reduce obesity in children and youth by more than 9 percent, and in adults by more than 5 percent. It would save over $170 million in health-care costs per year. That’s just the effect of the tax; with the investment of tax revenues in prevention, even more improvements in health and savings in health-care costs could be realized.

This is a solution to the obesity epidemic that should enjoy support from conservatives and liberals alike. Funding prevention efforts in local communities that transform neighborhoods, schools, and work environments into healthy places will make it easier for each of us to take personal responsibility for healthy living, save billions in health-care spending, and improve the economy and quality of life in Illinois. We can all be for that.

Elissa Bassler, MFA, is the CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute and Executive Director of the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity.

Reprinted from