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Bitter study: Soda taxes don't cut obesity, drive people to other sugars

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Health,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets,Taxes,New York City,Obesity

A new report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation casts "serious doubt" on efforts by nanny state legislators to curb obesity through tax increases on sweet sodas and energy drinks, finding in some cases that people simply shift to other sweets — and gain weight.

"Our results cast serious doubt on the assumptions that proponents of large soda taxes make on its likely impacts on population weight," said the report from three health economic experts. "Together with evidence of important substitution patterns in response to soda taxes that offset any caloric reductions in soda consumption, our results suggest that fundamental changes to policy proposals relying on large soda taxes to be a key component in reducing population weight are required," they added.

The report published in "Health Economics" and provided to Secrets could be a major blow to liberal and progressive state and local leaders who believe that high soft-drink taxes will instantly cut obesity, especially in children. It also undercuts social advocates who believe it is up to lawmakers to take over for parents and steer the nation's children on a path to healthy living.

The report looked at the impact of soda taxes on obesity on the national level and in two states where taxes have been imposed, Ohio and Arkansas.

On the national level, an increase in taxes on sugary drinks actually resulted in adults adding 27.7 calories to their daily intake with soda substitutes. "An important conclusion," said the report, "is that this evidence demonstrates that large increases in soft-drink taxes are unlikely to reduce total caloric intake."

In the studies of state data, the report found a decrease in obesity in Arkansas, but the data was limited, so the experts from the Universities of Wisconsin, Iowa and Washington focused on Ohio where more and better information was available. The result: "We cannot detect a significant weight effect because of a large soft drink tax increase," said the report titled "Non-linear Effects of Soda Taxes on Consumption and Weight Outcomes."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has in the past funded proposals to use taxes to cut obesity. But the new report is the second funded by the influential foundation that has in less than a year discredited claims that higher soda taxes will curb obesity.

A RWJF-funded report published last August in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics said that Americans with a sweet tooth simply found a substitute to sodas as they tried to avoid the higher tax. "Instituting a sugary-beverage tax may be an appealing public-policy option to curb obesity, but it's not as easy to use taxes to curb obesity as it is with smoking," study lead author Chen Zhen, a research economist at RTI International, said.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com.