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Paying the price for an obsese nation

Over the past few months we’ve heard about the problems plaguing our current health care system. We’ve heard about the millions of uninsured Americans, the inefficiency of our current system, and we’ve heard different ideas about how to go about fixing it. But when are we going to address an equally important issue in this larger dilemma: what we are eating?

Our obesity epidemic and the rise of diabetes in this country – two of the biggest (and most expensive) health problems we face today – didn’t come about overnight. Clearly there is something wrong with our lifestyles, more specifically in the way we eat.

It seems that the White House is becoming increasingly aware of this dilemma, and controversial ideas were proposed regarding how to solve it. Recently there has been talk in Washington about putting a “sin tax” on soda and other sugary beverages, an idea that has already been proposed in states such as New York and California. President Obama does not seem opposed to the tax, acknowledging in an interview with Men’s Health magazine that the sin tax is “an idea we should be exploring.”

This notion is met with much criticism, especially from the soda companies (obviously) and from Republicans, who say that such a tax would go against Obama’s campaign promise not to raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year. But while the idea of a soda tax may at first seem outrageous – why penalize people for drinking what they want to? – such a tax may be warranted.

Obesity and diabetes rates register at all-time highs in America, and they’re only expected to get higher. As food politics expert Michael Pollan points out in his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” one out of every three people born after the year 2000 are projected to develop diabetes – a staggering figure that has implications not only for our health but also for our economy. If we think health insurance is a problem now, imagine a third of the U.S. population seeking treatment for diabetes. Then add the various medical complications that will arise from what the U.S. Surgeon General has deemed an obesity epidemic. We’re looking at a gargantuan problem for an already struggling health care system.

So where does soda come into play? As Obama stated in an interview, “Every study that’s been done about obesity shows that there is as high a correlation between increased soda consumption and obesity as just about anything else. Obviously it’s not the only factor, but it is a major factor.” This correlation has a lot to do with the large amount of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in these beverages – the food industry’s sweetener of choice for just about everything. It certainly can’t be a coincidence that the rise in HFCS use has coincided with the steady rise of obesity and diabetes since its introduction to our diets in the 1980s. Though soda is not the only culprit of using such unhealthy sweeteners, it’s definitely a major contributor to our health problems.

There is no doubt that soda is bad for us, and we certainly drink a lot of it – the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy find that 62 percent of children aged 12 to 17 and 41 percent of children aged two to 11, drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day. If a tax on sugary drinks were implemented, this would almost certainly cause us to cut our consumption of them. In fact, U.S. Center for Disease Control Director Tom Friedan has stated that a penny-per-ounce excise tax, for example, could curb our soda consumption by 10 percent. And the benefits of a sin tax go beyond the obvious – the Congressional Budget Office estimates that just a three cent tax on sugary drinks would generate $24 billion over the next four years.

But there are those who argue that a tax on soda goes against our right to choose – that it is not the government’s place to tell people what to eat or drink. Maybe so, but something has to be done to stop the rise of obesity and diabetes in America, and reducing soda consumption by hitting consumers in the wallet could be a very effective way of doing so.

After months of intense and passionate health care debate, it is good to see that the issue of our diets and its role in our health care crisis is finally getting some legitimate attention. If we don’t start making some serious changes to what we are eating and drinking, we are going to pay a heavy price, both financially and in terms of our health. But we don’t tend to think about what we’re consuming and how it will affect us over time – so maybe it’s time for the government to remind us. A sin tax could prove to be an important first step in fixing our very serious health problems – problems that we literally can’t afford to ignore any longer.

Dan Rahrig is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at drahrig@student.umass.edu.

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