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Soda tax should be 'cost' of health care

Published March 10. 2012 09:02AM

So often today, the only thing agreed upon is that the agreed-upon thing is not the best solution. It's merely a solution that allows us to move on.

It seems to happen more so now than ever before in politics because more so now than ever before the philosophies of the Democrats and Republicans don't seem to allow for commonsense compromise.

The repercussions of this are found everywhere. I don't think that any taxpayer or politician in our state, for example, truly believes that what has transpired in education over the last few years is what's best for the children in the system.

For example, in the district where I teach, interscholastic sports, an element of the educational process that arguably helps as many students as classroom learning, were originally scheduled to be eliminated from the 2011-2012 budget. Funds raised by the community, however, kept this from occurring.

I hope those who raised the money and those who accepted it realize that this was far from the best solution. It was, however, a solution that temporarily delayed an outcome both dreaded.

I write of agreed-upon political solutions agreed upon to be something less than the best because the escalating cost of health care causes me to offer such a solution.

While I am a Libertarian philosophically, I'm a humanist emotionally; therefore, it's hard for me to argue that the government should be totally hands-off when it comes to health care.

But help offered should come with a cost. And if that has to be worked into the system through a tax, so be it (even though a true Libertarian embraces taxes the way a peacock embraces a porcupine).

The tax I'm talking about is to be levied upon sugar-sweetened beverages. Now I've broached this topic in columns before, but new statistics cause me to write of it again with renewed conviction.

At the turn of the century, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected that 29 million Americans would have diabetes by the year 2050, with the overwhelmingly majority of those cases being type 2 the type that people give themselves through years of excessive eating and little exercise.

The CDC's prediction was horribly, horribly wrong. By 2007, 23.6 Americans already had diabetes and the costs attributable to the disease reached $174 billion, much of which is covered by a health care system sustained through taxation.

This increase in diabetes has caused experts recalculate and estimate that the cost attributable to it will exceed a half trillion by 2050.

What strikes me as absurd is that type 2 diabetes, in all but the rarest of cases, can be prevented. What strikes me as equally absurd is that the collective group many of whom do what's needed to avoid the disease have to share the escalating health care costs caused by willful exercise and dietary indiscretions.

That's why a tax of sugar-sweetened beverages makes sense to me. It's not the best solution to the problem, but research analyzed at the University of California and Columbia University suggest that over a 10-year period even a penny-per-ounce tax could save $17 billion dollars in health costs, according to the online January issue of Health Affairs.

More importantly, the tax would also eliminate 96,000 heart attacks, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 premature deaths in that decade. Moreover, the improved collective health in the nation would generate $130 billion in taxes over the same time period.

Not to mention the incidence of type 2 diabetes, currently rising rapidly, would decrease by 2.6 percent.

Yet many experts argue that the tax should be even higher than a penny per ounce and that the improvements in America's health would be even better.

While I often find it amusing maybe even amazing that I'm arguing for any sort of new tax, I know that beliefs must change when times change.

Years ago, for instance, Consumer Science in the Public Interest was seen as, if not a radical, a left-wing watchdog organization that hounded big business into providing better-quality food. Back then in an expose of America's excessive sugar consumption, (primarily through sugar-sweetened beverages, by the way) a CSPI publication called soda "liquid candy."

The comment back then was seen as an over-the-top assessment, a pronouncement probably made to draw as much attention to the organization as the supposed problem.

Interestingly enough, the coauthors of the aforementioned published online paper called sugary soft drinks the same, but they also added that "a penny-per-ounce tax would substantially reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among adults in the United States."

If those rates go down, so will health costs.

And if health costs are reduced so will this inequity: people who do what's essential to maintain their health will not be paying as much to support those who can't or won't.

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