New York leaders are pressing for a so-called fat tax on the soft drinks industry, saying that sweet beverages are responsible for an upsurge of obesity across the United States.
State Health Commissioner Richard Daines took up the issue Monday, speaking of a "golden opportunity" to create the tax.
"The dramatic underpricing of sugar-sweetened beverages, their widespread availability, and the ceaseless marketing of these products constitute a stumbling block to good health and are a clear and present danger to the future of our children," Daines said.
He called obesity "the biggest public health challenge of this and the next few decades."
Public officials in New York and other states are echoing that call, eyeing the tax as a chance both to influence diets and to replenish tax coffers depleted by the recession.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, well known for his anti-smoking crusade in the city, also touted the idea in his weekly radio address Sunday.
"In these tough economic times, easy fixes to our problems are hard to come by," he said. "But the soda tax is a fix that just makes sense. It would save lives, it would cut rising health costs."
Nearly 20 percent of US children between the ages of six and 19 are estimated to suffer from obesity, which can encourage diabetes, heart disease and other grave problems.
Health experts blame insufficient exercise, but also the habit, particularly among the poor, of washing down fast food with extra-sugary soda.
The crisis has fed ballooning public costs -- 7.6 billion dollars in annual obesity-related medical bills in New York state alone -- much of which are covered by taxpayers.
Tax proponents say that soft drinks should be treated like tobacco so that the government can effectively price people away from their bad habits.
The soda industry dismisses the cigarettes parallel and has lobbied hard -- successfully so far -- against the levy.
J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the soft drinks industry-connected Center for Consumer Freedom accused the government of using spurious health arguments to sneak in a new tax on businesses.
"If the city or state is out of money, then they should own up to it, rather than trying to hide taxes in a whole slew of new fees," he told AFP.
"They should own up to their financial mismanagement and raise income taxes."
The industry scored a rare piece of positive publicity Monday when it announced huge voluntary reductions in the amount of high-sugar drinks sold to schools across the country.
Leading companies, including Coca-cola and PepsiCo, joined former president Bill Clinton in announcing the initiative, saying that 88 percent less calories were now sold in drinks compared to 2004.
"It's a brand new day in America's schools when it comes to beverages," the head of the American Beverage Association, Susan Neely.
"Our beverage companies have slashed calories in schools as full-calorie soft drinks have been removed. The beverages available to students are now lower-calorie, nutritious, smaller-portion choices."
Wilson, at the Center for Consumer Freedom, accused the government of denying people their guilty pleasures, or, as he put it, deciding their own "balance of enjoying life and life extension."
"They're punishing people for enjoying a little life once in a while," he said.