Should we tax sugary drinks for health care?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

We hate to say it too loud, but some taxes just make sense. One is the gasoline taxes that help keep up our streets and highways. They are adjusted quarterly to bring in the amount of money the Department of Roads expects to be able to spend during any one budget period.

Nebraska's gasoline tax stands at 27.3 cents per gallon, ranking 19th nationally.

The more you drive, the more you wear out the highway, the more gasoline you buy, the more gasoline taxes you pay to keep up the highway. Taxes don't make much more sense than that.

It's harder to make the leap to cigarette taxes, which amount to 64 cents a pack in Nebraska, nearly $125 million total in 2007, 37th in the nation.

Nebraska levies a 5.5 percent general sales or use tax on consumers, which is below the national media of 6 percent. State and local governments combined collected approximately $937 per capita in general sales taxes in 2006, ranking 28th highest nationally.

The sales tax was adopted in 1967, the gasoline tax in 1925 and the cigarette tax in 1947.

The tobacco settlement was something else entirely, intended to fine tobacco companies for the damage to the health of state residents who relied on Medicaid. Funds have gone for a number of purposes in Nebraska, including establishing regional health departments.

Now, with universal health care on everyone's mind, a new form of taxation is being proposed that seems like a logical outgrowth of the gasoline and tobacco experience.

But are we ready to make the leap to soda pop?

Some doctors think so.

A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine calls for a tax on "sugar-sweetened" drinks in order to reduce the consumption of the drinks and lower health costs while funding government run health programs.

"We can raise much-needed dollars while likely reducing obesity prevalence, which is a major driver of health care costs," the paper states.

Pediatric chiefs of nine hospitals in Illinois are getting on the bandwagon.

In a guest editorial sent to news media in Illinois, the doctors say a one-cent-per-ounce tax nationwide could generate $14 billion yearly.

They say the money could go to increase the number of pediatricians, increase access to underserved families, and improve kids' health by reducing calories.

They cite data showing that the average American child drinks 172 calories of sodas or other sugary drinks every day.

But we don't expect corn producers to support the tax, since much of the sweetener in sodas is corn syrup -- a source critics say is artificially cheap because of subsidies.

And we wouldn't be surprised if many of the consumers the tax is supposed to target suddenly developed a taste for diet colas, with tax receipts dropping accordingly.

Still, if obesity causes as many health problems as experts contend, and if sugary drinks play a significant role, don't be surprised if a new tax finds its way to a cash register near you.

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