US health sheriffs want to ride the sugary drinks that are helping to make Americans fat out of town, or at least off Americans' menu of choice, and one way they suggest going about it is by taxing sodapop.
"The average American consumes roughly 250 calories more today than they did two or three decades ago, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Thomas Frieden, said at the "Weight of the Nation" conference on obesity held in Washington this week.
"And of that, about 120 calories is in the form of sodas and other sugared food and beverages," he said.
Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight -- or shaped more like the bulbous Orangina bottle than the hourglass classic Coca-Cola bottle -- and obesity-related illnesses cost the United States nearly 150 billion dollars a year, health officials at the conference were told.
A soda tax would not only help Americans to slim down but could raise revenues that would help to offset the rising sums spent to treat preventable health conditions caused by obesity.
"The estimates we've seen suggest that a one-penny-per-ounce tax nationally would raise something in the order of 100 to 200 billion dollars over a 10-year time frame, as well as significantly reducing caloric intake -- at least from soda and sugar-sweetened beverages," Frieden said.
According to Julie Greenstein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), around 40 of the 50 US states already have soft drink or junk food taxes, but they are usually too low to have an effect on consumption.
The CSPI, which has advocated for health, nutrition and food safety in the United States since 1971, says a soft drink tax would "be a great way to pay for health reform and expansion" and wants to see such a tax imposed nationally.
A tax on soft drinks was included as a possible option in the health reform bill drafted by the Senate finance committee, said Greenstein, although she was unsure if the proposed levy would make it through to the final version of the proposed health care legislation.
"The soft drink industry has a very powerful lobby," she said.
Last week, the Coca Cola Corporation was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that "the consumer in this environment is not ready for a tax on a basic staple like non-alcoholic beverages."
Frieden has based his call for a soda tax on the campaign he instigated in New York City, where he was health commissioner for seven years, which practically ran the Marlboro man out of town.
A year after he became health commissioner of New York in 2002, Frieden started raising taxes on cigarettes to the point where if you buy a packet of 20 in the Big Apple today, you don't get much change from 10 dollars.
He reasoned that people would kick their cigarette habit if it cost too much. And he was right.
"We reduced adult smoking by 25 percent and teen smoking by 50 percent in six years. About half of that reduction was the result of taxation," Frieden said.
A similar tactic applied to sodas could help to cut consumption of the sugary drinks, he reasoned, but added that the decision to impose a national soda tax was one for the politicians, not health officials.
"Whether it gets done is a political question, but what we can say as the nation's prevention agency is that obesity is an enormous problem, and price interventions are likely to be effective," he said.