New York governor David Patterson has raised hackles all round with his proposal to levy 15 per cent obesity tax on sugar drinks.
A number of US states have sales taxes on soft drinks, sweets and snacks, while most other foods are tax-exempt. But New York's proposals would be the first to distinguish between 'diet' and 'non-diet' products. It would also double the existing 7.5% sales tax, already one of the highest in the US, potentially raising over $400m.
The proposal follows previous efforts by state legislators in New York and California to pass a 'fat tax' on high-calorie foods. It's expected to face opposition from The Coca-Cola Company and also PepsiCo, which has its corporate headquarters in New York State.
Sugared soft drinks have become a particular target for anti-obesity campaigners, with a 2005 study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest saying they are the single largest source of calories consumed by Americans.
A review of 88 nutritional studies published last year in the American Journal of Public Health
also found "clear associations" between the consumption of non-diet soft drinks and increased calorie intake and body weight.
But a rival review of 12 studies published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
said there was "virtually no association" between drinking sugary sodas and weight gain in children and adolescents.
The American Beverage Association argues that lack of exercise, genetics and other factors need to be taken into consideration in considering the causes of rising obesity rates.
Susan Neely, ABA President, said the idea of taxing a single category in response to obesity concerns was "misguided" and "ridiculous".
Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist pointed out that while it was true soft drinks were not the only problem, evidence was also accumulating that sugary drinks were a major contributor to obesity.
If you have a snack, even something unhealthy like potato chips, you'll eat less at your next meal. But have a Coke, and despite all those calories, you'll still eat just as much. Indeed, according to some studies, you'll actually eat more.
These findings raise the possibility that soft drinks increase hunger, decrease satiety or simply calibrate people to a high level of sweetness that generalizes to preferences in other foods," said a peer-reviewed article last year in the American Journal of Public Health.
The average American consumes about 35 gallons of non-diet soda each year and gets far more added sugar from soda than from desserts.
One new study estimates that 24 million Americans now have diabetes, more than four times the number in 1980. The total direct and indirect cost to Americans is $218 billion each year — an average of $1,900 per American household. Each year, diabetes contributes to the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.
Part of the solution must come from reforming agriculture so that we stop subsidizing corn that ends up as high fructose corn syrup inside soft drinks, Kristoff believes.
Soft drinks are linked to diabetes and obesity in the way that tobacco is to lung cancer," says Barry Popkin, a nutrition specialist at the University of North Carolina and author of "The World Is Fat."
Even while preparing to mount a concerted offensive against the proposed tax, soft drink companies are also making some gestures to show that they are concerned.
Coke and Pepsi have committed themselves to voluntary guidelines that eliminate advertising and marketing of the sugary drinks to children under 12.