Despite public health warnings and medical concerns, childhood obesity in the U.S. remains high.
A new study suggests a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) such as sodas, energy drinks, sweet teas, and sports drinks would reduce obesity in adolescents more than other policies.
Researchers believe the tax would be more effective than renewed exercise promotions or an advertising ban and that the toll would also generate significant revenue for additional obesity prevention activities.
The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Another strategy is to increase physical activity programming in or after school with programs targeting children between the ages of six and 12 being of the most benefit.
Nearly one in three young people between two and 19 years old were overweight or obese in 2009-2010, and 17 percent were obese. Researchers found significant disparities in obesity prevalence among racial/ethnic groups and by socioeconomic status.
Obese adolescents tend to remain obese as adults, making childhood the ideal time to prevent obesity.
For these reasons, policymakers are interested in effective programs and policies to reduce childhood obesity. States and localities are increasingly using laws, regulations, and other policy tools to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
However, federal policies can reach larger populations and fund programs that benefit populations at risk for obesity, and thus play an essential role in improving public health.
In order to evaluate the potential long-term impact of federally recommended policies, investigators used a set of criteria to select three policies to reduce childhood obesity from among 26 recommended policies: afterschool physical activity programs, a one cent per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), and a ban on child-directed fast food television advertising.
For each policy, the literature was reviewed from January 2000 through July 2012 to find evidence of effectiveness and to create average effect sizes.
The investigators then used a statistical model to simulate each policy’s impact on diet or physical activity, and then body mass index (BMI), in a simulated school-aged population in 2032, after 20 years of implementation.
The model predicted that all three policies could reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity, particularly among blacks and Hispanics, who have higher rates of obesity than whites, thus demonstrating that federal policy could alter the childhood obesity epidemic.
Afterschool physical activity programs would reduce obesity the most among children ages six to 12 (1.8 percentage points) and the advertising ban would reduce obesity the least (0.9 percentage points).
The SSB excise tax would reduce obesity the most among adolescents ages 13-18 (2.4 percentage points).
“Although the model predicts that each of these policies would reduce obesity in children and adolescents, the one cent tax on SSBs also has other characteristics that make it the best option,” said lead investigator Alyson Kristensen, M.P.H., of Partnership for Prevention, Washington, DC.
“The tax reduces obesity while at the same time generating significant revenue for additional obesity prevention activities.”
An earlier study estimated that a national one cent per ounce SSB excise tax would have generated $13.25 billion in 2010.
Other advantages are that it would also reduce obesity among adults who consume SSBs, it does not require substantial federal funding to implement (unlike the afterschool policy), and would not face the legal hurdles that new regulations often encounter.
“Unfortunately, implementation of any of these policies in the near term is extremely unlikely,” said Kristensen.
“However, this may change as the evidence base for these policies grows and changes in public knowledge increase calls for stronger governmental action.
Research showing the harms of consuming SSBs continues to grow and the need for new revenue sources may spur Congress to consider a national SSB excise tax, such as the recently introduced SWEET Act.
“In the meantime, the findings support state- and local-level action to enact SSB excise taxes, promote physical activity in afterschool settings, and reduce marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages in public schools,” Kristensen said.