During a recent St. Helens City Council work session, a representative of The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County gave a presentation on the topic of a sugary drinks tax.
Program coordinator Ashley Baggett began by providing an overview of local health data. She said County Health Rankings and Roadmaps puts Columbia County at 14 out of 33 in the state for overall health (three counties were not ranked due to lack of data).
Baggett pointed to rising childhood obesity numbers in the U.S. during the past three decades and gave statistics that put Columbia County ahead of the nation for overweight students in the eighth and 11th grades.
“Almost 30 percent of our eighth graders, and 25 percent of our 11th graders are not at a healthy weight,” Baggett said. “Today’s young people may be the first generation in history in the United States to live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation.” Sugary drinks such as soda are rising in consumption among young people, and data shows drinking a single 8-ounce sugary beverage every day increases a child’s odds of becoming obese by 60 percent.
According to statistics from Oregon Healthy Teen in 2015, eighth graders in Columbia County consumed more soda, sweetened coffee/tea, and energy drinks than the state averages. The statistics also showed 11th graders outdrank Oregon averages for flavored milk, sweetened coffee/tea, sports drinks and energy drinks. The statistics are not mutually exclusive; a student could be drinking one or all the sugar-laden beverages.
Baggett said in Oregon, more than 177 million gallons of sugary drinks are consumed each year. That amounts to approximately one gallon per week for every single person in the state. Sugary drinks increase the risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions. People who consume sugary drinks regularly, one or more cans daily, have a 26-percent greater risk of developing type-2 diabetes than people who rarely have such drinks.
When it comes to the question of how to counter the health threat posed by sugary drinks, Baggett said the Oregon Health Authority’s State Health Improvement Plan has a piece of the puzzle: increase the cost of sugary beverages as a deterrent to consumption. It also suggests increasing the number of private and public businesses and other places that adopt standards for healthy food and beverages, physical activity and breastfeeding.
“We’re working towards preventing the current generation of young people from developing these health conditions,” Baggett said. “That can only improve Americans’ quality of life, but also saves us money not only at the federal and state, but also the local level.”
“Implementing a sugary sweetened beverage tax and creating a health promotion fund can be an effective tool for reducing trends in obesity and the costs to our community,” she said.
Baggett said the idea of sugary drinks taxes was gaining momentum in the country, highlighting the 2014 efforts of the City of Berkeley to put a penny-per-ounce tax on soda and the like. She said the move has generated revenue and reduced consumption. She added that in Mexico, a peso-per-liter tax has had a similar effect.
Council president Doug Morten suggested an education component was needed as much as any tax, saying that both young people and adults lack an understanding of the dangers of heavy sugar consumption. Baggett said there are examples of tax revenue being directed in such a manner.
Mayor Rick Scholl was concerned about coffee and energy drinks showing high numbers for local youth, to which Baggett speculated on the numerous coffee stands and grocery stores near the high schools. “It’s really easy to go into a retailer before or after school or on breaks,” she said.
Councilor Ginny Carlson said the idea could offset the revenue needed for the city to support healthy activities and parks. “The revenue from that would go to pay for healthy habits, and maybe just the increase in cost would deter people from purchasing it,” she said.