A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine assesses what the impact over 20 years would be for a tax or advertising ban on sugar-sweetened drinks, compared with other strategies to reduce obesity in adolescents, such as increased exercise.

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According to the researchers, the 1¢ tax would reduce obesity while simultaneously generating significant revenue that could be invested in additional obesity prevention strategies

In 2009-10, an estimated 1 in 3 American youths between the ages of 2 and 19 were overweight or obese, and 17% were obese. Studies have observed that obese adolescents tend to remain obese as adults, so developing strategies to tackle obesity during childhood is essential.

Increasingly, states are adopting laws and regulatory tools to boost physical activity and healthy eating. However, federal policies are more effective at reaching larger populations.

The researchers selected three out of a proposed 26 federal policies for evaluation. These were:

  • After-school physical activity programs
  • A 1¢ per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
  • A ban on child-directed fast food television advertising.

For each of these policies, the researchers reviewed available literature published between 2000 and 2012. Microsimulation models – looking at a simulated school-aged population after 20 years of policy implementation – were then created to estimate the impact for each policy on diet, physical activity and body mass index (BMI).

Analyzing their results, the researchers found that, in the simulations, all three policies were effective at reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity.

The models also suggested that these strategies would be particularly effective at reducing childhood obesity in black and Hispanic populations, who have higher rates of obesity than other racial/ethnic groups.

The simulations show that after-school activity programs would reduce obesity the most among children aged 6-12 (by 1.8%), the advertising ban would reduce obesity the least (by 0.9%), and the tax on sugary drinks would reduce obesity the most in adolescents aged 13-28 (by 2.4%).

Lead investigator Alyson Kristensen, MPH, of Partnership for Prevention, Washington, DC, says that although the results show that all of the policies would reduce obesity, the 1¢ tax is the best option.

She says that this tax reduces obesity while simultaneously generating significant revenue that could be invested in additional obesity prevention strategies.

Kristensen adds:

Unfortunately, implementation of any of these policies in the near term is extremely unlikely. However, this may change as the evidence base for these policies grows and changes in public knowledge increase calls for stronger governmental action. Research showing the harms of consuming SSBs continues to grow and the need for new revenue sources may spur Congress to consider a national SSB excise tax, such as the recently introduced SWEET Act.

In the meantime, the findings support state- and local-level action to enact SSB excise taxes, promote physical activity in after-school settings and reduce marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages in public schools.”