OP-ED | City hall should adopt Seattle’s proposed sugary drinks tax to improve public health

For nearly three decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been sounding the alarm regarding the epidemic of obesity. This global call to action champions taxes on sugary drinks as a key part of this strategy. As medical professionals proudly practicing in Seattle, we look forward to joining a growing number of cities (and countries including Mexico, France, the United Kingdom and South Africa) heeding the WHO’s call.

Here’s why Seattle’s proposal makes medical sense:

  • Taxing sugary drinks is a proven way to improve public health while also increasing funding for education and health programs
  • Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the negative health outcomes of consuming sugary drinks. Taxing sugary drinks will help reverse this trend
  • Sugary drinks can be much worse for your health than foods with added sugar

Not all sugars are equal. The sweetness of table sugar (sucrose) comes from fructose, a molecule that only the liver can metabolize. When consumed in excess, fructose can cause liver disease and subsequently type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  In nature, fructose is only present in small quantities and bound to fiber, which protects it from causing disease. However, in sugary drinks, fructose is delivered in large doses without any fiber to protect us from its harm. Other sugars like glucose (the sugar found in starch) and lactose (the naturally-occurring sugar in milk) do not directly lead to the same health risks. Therefore, the metabolic harm from the 39 grams (10 teaspoons) of sugar found in 12-oz of cola are vastly more dangerous than the 13 grams of lactose found in a 12-oz café latte.   

Restricting access to sugary drinks makes a difference. Exceeding safe limits for daily sugar intake becomes far too easy when consumed as a liquid — we don’t feel full when consuming sugary drinks and keep on consuming more. The American Heart Association, for example, has a recommended daily limit for children ages 2-18 of less than 6 teaspoons of added sugar and none for children ages 2 or younger. Sugary drinks are the greatest contributor to added sugar intake in the US. Individuals who consume one to two sugary drinks per day have a 26 percent higher risk for developing type II diabetes. While certainly not exhaustive, taxing sugary drinks provides the biggest impact with a single measure.

This tax protects our most vulnerable. Currently, sugary drinks are marketed specifically to target youth, especially youth of color. This is particularly egregious when the soda industry knows that this is the same population suffering from the highest rates of obesity-related diseases. The tax is aimed at the distributors, directly penalizing them for these unfair practices, and it puts this money toward healthy food access and addressing educational inequities in Seattle. Impact assessments indicate that low-income Seattleites will overall save money through decreased consumption. By saving money, having better access to real food, and receiving improvements in education, Seattle can improve the quality of life for those being preyed upon by the soda industry.

Healthcare research continues to show us that excessive sugar consumption is linked to serious health conditions including: obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay. Sugar is the new tobacco and so we should learn from the public health battles on that front. Decades’ worth of data — including recent studies on the sugary drinks taxes in Berkeley and Mexico — proves that taxing unhealthy products has been one of the most effective interventions to control tobacco exposure and reduce sugary drinks consumption.

As healthcare providers, we call on the Mayor and City Council to follow the WHO’s call to action by taking a vital step toward reversing the obesity epidemic while also increasing funds for important education and public health programs.

LESLIE LEE is a registered dietitian; KARI PALMER is a family practitioner; UMA PISHARODY is a pediatric gastroenterologist; DINESH THEKKE KARUMATHIL is a pediatric hospitalist; and ROB WEINSHEIMER is a pediatric surgeon. All five authors are medical professionals proud to practice in Seattle.