UC Berkeley professor pushes for taxes on sugary drinks

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A UC Berkeley professor published a commentary earlier this month supporting the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Lori Dorfman, an adjunct professor at the School of Public Health, submitted her commentary to The American Journal of Preventative Medicine in response to the results of a 2011 public opinion survey that revealed that despite increasing awareness of the links between sugary beverages and obesity, the majority of the public is against taxing the drinks.

“At the moment, arguments against the tax resonate more strongly than arguments in support of it,” said Jeff Niederdeppe, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University and co-publisher of the survey’s results. “The beverage industry outspends public-health advocates by a large margin, adding to the challenge.”

Supporters of the sugar-sweetened-beverage tax believe it is the necessary step that would accomplish two goals: reducing consumption of the unhealthy drinks and creating monetary resources that can be used to improve the public’s overall health.

Dorfman’s commentary focused on the specific reasons behind the lack of support for taxes. She determined that one contributor to the public’s response to the prospective tax is the American public’s widespread dislike for government interventions.

“People are fond of demonizing taxes,” Dorfman said. “Taxes are simply the way we chip in so we can do together what not one of us can do by ourselves.”
However, according to Lawrence Wallack, a professor of public health at Portland State University, voters can be more encouraged to support taxation if the revenue created funnels into community-help organizations, such as funds for childhood-obesity prevention.

“People tend to support taxes if they’re earmarked for something people think makes sense,” Wallack said.

Dorfman wrote that another reason for the public’s aversion to the tax was that research exposing the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages and health issues is in its early stages. She maintains that awareness of the health risks and, in turn, support for the taxation will increase gradually.

According to Dorfman, the failures of sugary-beverage taxes in Richmond and El Monte were significant stepping stones that have brought crucial attention to the policy discussion even though the efforts were unsuccessful.

“People have to be exposed to an idea many times before they know what it means or can decide whether they agree with it or not,” Dorfman said. “You have to have failure before you have success.”

According to Roberta Friedman, director of public policy at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, proponents are hopeful about future implementation.

“Given that so many states have filed this kind of legislation, there is still high interest and high optimism that a bill in one of these states will be passed,” she said.

Contact Claire Chiara at [email protected].