The battle to contain the global obesity crisis stepped up a gear yesterday as American public health experts demanded a sugar tax on the country's most popular source of refreshment – sweetened carbonated drinks and fruit juices.
In what is certain to become a world-wide debate on the use of economic sanctions to tackle obesity, a group led by academics from Yale and Harvard universities proposed a "cola war", with a 1 cent tax per fluid ounce on sweetened beverages, raising the price of the average can of cola by 15 to 20 per cent.
They say this would cut calorie consumption from drinks by a minimum of 10 per cent (enough to prompt weight loss) and contribute almost $15bn towards the health costs of obesity.
"The reasons to proceed are compelling. The science base linking the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to the risk of chronic disease is clear. Research suggests a tax... would have strong positive effects on reducing consumption. We believe that taxes on beverages that help drive the obesity epidemic should and will become routine," the experts say in the New England Journal of Medicine.
British nutrition specialists backed the move but said other economic measures, such as a tariff on sugar imports, could have the same impact but be less politically controversial.
Tam Fry, spokesman for the UK National Obesity Forum, said: "We have got to start thinking very seriously about taxing unhealthy food and drink as part of the drive to improve the nation's health and cut obesity. The amount of sugar that goes into these soft drinks is staggering and it has a double whammy, increasing obesity and rotting teeth."
The US proposal follows a report by the respected Institute of Medicine this month calling for an increase in local taxes on soft drinks and junk food. In the UK, the British Medical Association narrowly defeated a proposal for a chocolate tax at its annual meeting in 2008. Gordon Brown vetoed a plan for a tax on burgers and sweets in 2004, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect the poor.
Consumption of fizzy drinks, fruit juices, smoothies and other sweetened beverages is soaring around the world and is recognised as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic, especially among children. Americans are drinking twice as much of the drinks as they did 25 years ago, and they now contribute 172 calories daily to the average US child's diet. Experts say the UK is close behind.
Jack Winkler, professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, said: "I support this. It would be a massive public acknowledgement about the danger sugar poses to health."
But he proposed raising the price of sugar permanently by reforming the world commodity markets. Imposing tariffs, which are invisible, would be much better than raising taxes, he said.
The British Nutrition Foundation said that, instead of altering food choices, increasing taxes "could simply mean higher prices for consumers – especially those on lower incomes".
Sugar rush: Sweetened drinks
* A can of Coca-Cola contains 34.98g of sugar, 38.86 per cent of GDA
* The same size Pepsi contains 36.3g or 40.3 per cent of GDA
* A similar serving of Sunny Delight contains 27.4g or 30.5 per cent of GDAReuse content