Coke on Soda Tax for Obesity: It's You, Not Us

The chief executive of the Coca-Cola Co. Thursday threw a jab into the fray about proposed soda taxes intended to curb obesity, charging that America's obesity problem is linked more to the nation's sedentary lifestyle than to sugary beverages.

But some dietitians and public health experts said many of his arguments hold less water than a can of coke.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, CEO Muhtar Kent wrote, "In cities and states across America -- and even at the federal level -- this idea [of a soda tax] is getting increased attention despite its regressive nature and inherent illogic."

Along with examples of how a sedentary lifestyle contributes to weight gain, Kent also argued that two states that have soda taxes -- West Virginia and Arkansas -- also rank among the 10 worst states for obesity rates.

Doctors and public health experts agreed that soda is not the sole cause of obesity, but some people also say the tax is a good idea in the fight to curb obesity and raise money for health care programs.

"Would anybody expect the makers of Coke and Pepsi to support a tax on soda, no matter how solid the data was?" asked Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine and medical contributor to ABC News. "I very much doubt the Op-Ed will change anybody's mind for that reason."

Indeed, the idea of a tax on sweetened beverages to encourage better beverage choices and curb obesity has gained traction in the past few years.

Soda Tax Proposals Are Catching On

Public health leaders twice recommended a tax on sweetened beverages in April and, again, in September in the influential New England Medical Journal.

The idea was picked up earlier, in December 2008, by New York Gov. David Paterson and was endorsed by the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit group that often advises the government on health issues.

Why Fight a Soda Tax?

Brand Republic, a United Kingdom marketing news Web site, reported Wednesday that Coca-Cola "is planning an advertising campaign to educate consumers about nutrition in an attempt to derail plans to introduce a soft drinks tax," a day before Kent's Wall Street Journal article appeared.

A Coca-Cola official declined to comment for this story.

In the article, however, Kent came out strong against the proposed taxes, repeatedly saying the beverage industry has become a target and that the proposed taxes demonized the industry.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5 percent of the calories in the average American diet," Kent argued in the article. "It's difficult to understand why the beverages we and others provide are being targeted as the primary cause of weight gain when 94.5 percent of caloric intake comes from other foods and beverages."

Katz of Yale said that such statistics, while technically accurate, were misleading.

"When they give a number like this, that's spread across the population," Katz said. "But that's not the way it works, I don't drink soda at all so that brings the number down. For a certain segment of the population, the segment that drinks a lot of soda, that percentage is much higher."

While one person might add an extra 150 calories to his or her daily intake with a can of soda, other people may be adding several hundred calories with several sodas a day, Katz said.

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