The debate over sugar-loaded drinks and obesity is headed to Washington, as part of legislation introduced to tax manufacturers for every teaspoon of sugar in beverages.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who has said she doesn’t expect her bill to even come up for a vote, hopes the proposal she unveiled a few weeks ago will spur lawmakers to learn more about the issues and boost local areas to push their own levies and education campaigns.

The bill would exempt drinks such as milk and 100-percent fruit juices and would mean a tax of about 15 cents on a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.

Already this year, there has been a rallying cry about the health and economic costs of sugary beverages. Advocates from New York and Vermont to Illinois and California have pushed various disincentives, including warning labels, taxes and limited portions. This fall, as a result of new federal lunch rules, sodas and sugary drinks will no longer be sold in schools.

DeLauro told attendees she would be introducing the legislation to tax sugar-sweetened drinks such as sodas last month during a two-day National Soda Summit in Washington, D.C.

The conference was organized by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, with support from the American Heart Association; Bloomberg Philanthropies; the California Center for Public Health Advocacy; California Endowment; and the Kresge Foundation.

Dozens of states and cities have attempted soda taxes through ballot initiatives or legislation in recent years, but now advocates are buoyed by a new high-calorie drink and food tax in Mexico.

In January, consumers south of the U.S. border began paying an excise tax of 8 percent on most junk food and a peso-per-liter on sugar-sweetened drinks. It raises the price of a 2-liter soda there by about 10 percent. Last summer, Mexico nudged past the United States as the most obese country, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. More than 32 percent of Mexican adults are obese, while less than 32 percent of are in the United States.

In Illinois last month, a House committee struck down a proposed law to tax sodas by a penny per ounce, which would have raised about $600 million for obesity-prevention. Advocates are pushing to re-introduce the bill in 2015. In California, the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley will hold ballot measures in November to introduce soda taxes.

The AHA supports a tax on sodas if the revenue is used to help obesity prevention and heart disease programs.

“It’s complex,” says Dr. Rachel Johnson, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont,  chair of the AHA’s nutrition committee. “There are a lot of moving parts. … But I like to say the bottom line is how do we make the healthy choice the easy choice?”

All of this movement is happening, Johnson said, because the public is beginning to get a glimpse of the health and quality of life costs of our sugary diets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that one in three children is at risk of developing diabetes.

There’s a big gap in what experts recommend for a healthy diet – and reality.

The AHA issued a statement on sugars and cardiovascular disease in 2009, saying added processed sugars should be limited to 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons a day for men. But today, the average daily American intake of processed sugar is 22 teaspoons and about 45 gallons of sugary drinks a year.

For adults, the AHA recommends no more than 36 ounces, or 450 calories, a week in sugar-added beverages. Children, Johnson says, should have much less than that or not at all.

“We used to say this may be the first generation of children who may not live as long as their parents,” she said. “Now, we are saying this is the first generation of children who will not live as long as their parents. … The costs associated with the health problems of obesity could crush our system’s ability to deal with it. ” 

Roberta Friedman, director of public policy for the Rudd Center for Food Obesity at Yale University, said awareness is starting to seep in, but “there’s a mountain to climb” in getting any taxes on sugar-laden beverages.

“The beverage industry has a lot of money, and they can fight us by lobbying even harder than we have the capacity to do with state and federal legislation,” she said. “They are also getting to the public by sponsoring community efforts, paying for score boards in school, community gardens and throwing big bashes for schools.”

At the same time, she said taxes are not the magic bullet.

“We are hoping it will have a big impact but it’s got to be in conjunction with a lot of obesity prevention initiatives at the same time,” Friedman said. “We hope it would raise awareness and get people to switch over to water and to non-caloric beverages.”

For many, however these issues are less about public policy, science or statistics and more about day-to-day living.

In San Antonio, Alyssa and Makayla Esparza made the leap to get rid of their daily soda habit – and to encourage friends to do the same – because they were focused on getting healthy, not on trying to make a statement. Their grandmother, Dawn Guerrero, said the girls would come home from school, grab sodas and junk food and watch television or play on the computer. When Guerrero told them to go out and play with other kids in the neighborhood, they said there weren’t any.

The girls and their grandmother decided to change all of that. They began Fitness FUNatics. It encourages kids to meet several times a week to play kickball, tennis, basketball and volleyball, as well as do martial arts and circuit stations. Snacks have gone from chips and soda to water and fruit.

“It has been a little bit tough because I’ve been having it for so long,” said 9-year-old Alyssa, who attends Northwest Crossing Elementary with her 10-year-old sister. “But now that I’m not drinking it, my body feels better, and it makes me want to move more. … Half the [kids in the] cafeteria drink soda and Gatorade and lots of sugar drinks.”

Guerrero says she sticks to the basics – movement, water and natural food.

“It’s been great for the community and for awareness,” Guerrero said. “We’re trading in our sodas. We’re learning what’s in our drinks, where it comes from. One of our messages is candy and sodas are not meal replacements.”

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