A couple of senators committed pop comedy Friday during the Revenue Committee’s hearing on a proposal to end the sales tax exemption on soft drinks.
As Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery introduced LB 447, Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte noted his colleague’s voice sounded a little raspy and suggested Avery might need something to wet his whistle. Hansen reached under the table and produced a half-empty, two-liter bottle of root beer.
Later, Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont excused himself from the hearing, came back in a few minutes and loudly cracked open a can of pop while someone was testifying against the bill. Both gags got some laughter.
But beneath the effervescence lurked some heavy statistics about obesity in Nebraska.
Dr. Adi Pour, health director for Douglas County, testified that 28 percent of Nebraska adults are obese. The percentage is closer to one-third for youth in Douglas County. Unless our waistlines stop expanding, nearly six in 10 of us will be clinically obese by 2030.
Given links between excessive weight and heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancer, the issue isn’t so easy to laugh off.
A recent analysis by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts Nebraska will spend $3.35 billion annually on weight-related health problems if the obesity rate continues to climb as projected. But if Nebraskans could reduce their body mass index (BMI) by just 5-percent, the state could save close to $3.7 billion in the next 20 years.
How much weight are we talking about? For a 6-foot person weighing 200 pounds, a 5-percent drop in BMI would translate to about 10 pounds.
Avery’s bill proposes directing the $11 million in annual revenue collected from a soda pop tax to school wellness programs that teach kids better eating and exercise habits. The programs have produced encouraging results in Lincoln and Kearney by doing simple things like taking sugary pop and snacks out of vending machines, sugary treats out of classrooms and incorporating exercise throughout the school day, not just in P.E. class.
Members of the soft drink industry say they’re being demonized for a complex problem. They say soft drinks make up less than 10 percent the diets of Americans who now people spend many more hours sitting in front of a screen than doing physical activity. And despite a 12 percent decline in full-calorie beverage sales and a 21-percent drop in total soft drink calories produced for the marketplace over the last 10 to 14 years, obesity rates continue to climb.
Avery said unlike food and milk, soda isn’t necessary for survival and it contributes to health problems. Like alcohol and tobacco, it should be taxed. The purpose of such a tax would be less about cutting pop consumption and more about providing revenue to help teach younger generations how to avoid obesity-related health problems before it’s too late.
Clearly, one of the messages that popped to the surface was that obesity will cost us all unless we can figure out some solutions soon. Here’s a link to our story on the hearing.