Oregon Live: Reducing soda consumption will improve kids' health (Guest opinion)

This article originally appeared on Oregon Live and is available here.

A recently published Oregonian editorial (“Soda pop tax is punitive and biased,” April 12) firmly opposed a Multnomah County ballot measure that would add a distribution tax of 1.5 cents per ounce on sugary drinks, including soda, energy drinks and sweetened teas. As a Portland-based pediatrician who treats thousands of children every year, I must respectfully disagree with the Oregonian Editorial Board’s conclusions.

Ensuring the current and future health of the children is central to my practice. From my perspective, and with no exaggeration, limiting sugar consumption is one of the best things we could do for our children. Here’s my perspective as a physician:

The addictive properties, impact on mood and negative health effects of sugar are well-documented. Sugar consumption contributes to Type 2 diabetes, which is a serious health problem here and throughout the country. Added sugars increase the risk of heart disease and obesity. I see a variety of other health issues linked to obesity that begin in childhood, including high blood pressure, liver disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Sugar consumption disproportionately affects people in low-income communities. It’s true that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are some of the cheapest commodities in the world and sugary drinks do, in turn, tend to be cheaper than drinks without sugar. This does not mean low-income families have no other options. Clean, high quality tap water is freely available. Low-income families are more likely to suffer from health problems such as obesity than those in higher income brackets. Type 2 diabetes is also more common among low-income families.

A tax of 1.5 cents an ounce on sugary beverages is a drop in the ocean compared to the costs of diabetes and its complications, or a hospital bill. The Coalition for Healthy Kids and Education, the group behind the ballot initiative, is focused on prevention of negative health outcomes. Sugar-related diseases are avoidable. Paying your medical bills? Not so much.

Education about the health risks of sugar and about how diet impacts health is important in my practice. I always make a point of informing families on the health benefits of reducing consumption of sugary drinks.

But the fact of the matter is, we need a comprehensive program of education and taxation to truly reduce sugar consumption. For decades, governments at all levels have run smoking reduction campaigns, labeled cigarettes as dangerous to health and imposed taxes on tobacco to help pay for the increased costs borne by all of us from smoking. The benefits of taxation have proven effective time and again: nationally, every 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes reduces overall consumption by three to five percent, reduces the number of young-adult smokers by about 3.5 percent, and reduces the number of kids who smoke by six or seven percent.

The coalition intends to raise money to fund critical initiatives for Multnomah County’s children and youth, including expanding access to pre-schools, rebuilding of playgrounds, and creating school gardens and educational programs on health and nutrition. These investments help create better outcomes for kids and build a healthier, more resilient community — and that’s good for everyone.

Similar tax initiatives on sugary drinks are working well in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boulder, Berkeley and many other cities. It will work here and it could not come at a better time.

Dr. Jennifer Bass is a pediatrician practicing in Portland and the Quality Lead for Pediatric Exercise and Obesity at Northwest Permanente.