Friday, April 9, 2010

TN medical students want soda tax to fight childhood obesity

Group favors use of funds for athletic fields, parks By Christina E. Sanchez • THE TENNESSEAN • April 9, 2010 PageSoda makers pay a penny per half-liter in West Virginia to sell pop, and dental, medical and nursing schools get a funding boost. In Arkansas they pay about 2 cents per gallon and the money goes to help the state health insurance program. Medical students in Tennessee want the tax here to tackle a different problem: the childhood obesity epidemic. About 36 percent of the state's children are obese or overweight. Soda manufacturers and bottlers already dish out a 1.9 percent tax on gross receipts from soft drinks and malt beverage. A portion of the money, about $5 million, has been used for litter cleanup and prevention in the state's 95 counties since the early 1980s. But the students want counties also to be able to use the money, if they choose, to create athletic fields, parks and greenways. The increased recreational opportunities, they said, should be part of dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic. No new or added taxes would be created. The bill is working its way through the state legislature. "We would be totally naive if we thought that our bill would address the magnitude of obesity in the state of Tennessee, but there is evidence that access to recreation increases physical activity," said David Marcovitz, a second-year medical student at Vanderbilt University who spoke to state lawmakers Wednesday. "This would be a very small step. Our hope is also to raise awareness about the link between obesity and sugar-sweetened beverages." The Beverage Association of Tennessee, which represents the soda industry, disagrees with the proposal and says the money should not be diverted from litter control toward "a back-door funding" solution for health problems. "We are either in the business of raising tax money to deal with litter or we are going to be in the business of taxing our industry to deal with some health issue," said beverage association representative Raymond Thomasson, who expressed his opposition before a state Senate committee hearing on Tuesday. "It's unique. I just don't support it. If we're going to deal with obesity, let's do it straight up."

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