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More support for a junk-food tax

September 2, 2009 | 12:33 pm

Taxes designed to discourage kids from eating junk food got another endorsement Tuesday, this time from the esteemed Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

In a 92-page report titled “Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity,” a panel of experts suggested such taxes could play an important role in helping children make healthier eating choices.

Pepsi The panel didn’t suggest a specific tax rate. Committee member Mary Story, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, noted that raising the price of sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks by 10% would result in an 8% to 10% decrease in consumption, according to several studies.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are seen as Public Enemy No. 1 in the fight against obesity. At least rich fatty foods like cheesecake and French fries make you feel full. Calorie-laden sodas and sports drinks go right through the body without triggering any feeling of satiety.

But cutting back on sodas hasn’t been shown to translate into meaningful weight loss. A clinical trial this year found that cutting back on 100 calories' worth of soda each day produced about half a pound of weight loss after a year and a half. (For more on the scientific merits of junk food taxes, see this L.A. Times story.)

The Institute of Medicine report acknowledged that “there is limited evidence” that such a tax would combat childhood obesity. But the tax would have a broad reach, and public support for it is growing – two reasons why local governments should give it strong consideration, according to the report.

The need for solutions is great. In the last 30 years, the proportion of obese elementary school children rose from 6.5% to 17%. Among adolescents between ages 12 and 19, the obesity prevalence jumped from 5% to 17.6%.

Other suggestions included: requiring restaurants to provide calorie information on their menus; encouraging farmers markets to accept government-issued food vouchers; prevent fast-food restaurants and ice cream trucks from locating or driving close to schools or playgrounds; promote breastfeeding; make streets safer and more convenient for pedestrians and bicyclists; and create after-school programs such as dance classes and sports leagues.

The proposals aren’t meant to absolve parents of any responsibility for teaching healthful habits to their kids. But the IOM panel pointed out that local governments have a history of implementing policies aimed at child well-being, such as requiring bike helmets and routine immunizations.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Still a tempting tax target. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images