National soda tax, regulation not part of Obama obesity plan

WASHINGTON — The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity issued a blueprint Tuesday that's thick with ideas but doesn't put the hammer down yet on taxpayers or private industry.

A national soda tax? Worth further study, but not this year. New regulatory authority over food marketing to children, or changes to agricultural subsidies to make fresh fruit and vegetables cheaper? Possibilities down the road, but why not first encourage more voluntary steps by the private sector?

The 124-page report from the task force that President Barack Obama created three months ago contains 70 recommendations for turning around the national obesity epidemic. But it looks to current regulatory authority, more federal spending and research — and public persuasion. It pushes the more politically divisive options down the road to unspecified dates.

One in five U.S. children today is obese. Experts worry that's straining the health care system and weakening the U.S. military. The task force's primary stated goal is to bring the child obesity rate back to 1 in 20 by 2030, as it was in 1970.

First lady Michelle Obama, the public face of the administration's "Let’s Move" anti-obesity campaign, said at an event unveiling the report that it creates "a very solid roadmap that we need to make these goals real, to solve this problem within a generation. Now we just need to follow through with the plan. We just need everyone to do their part."

Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said the plan embodies the idea that regulation is "the last thing you want to do," only after other means are exhausted. "You try to start by pushing soft regulation, by using your bully pulpit . . . by commending the companies that are really stepping up to the plate and sometimes shaming companies that aren't doing enough."

The task force raises the concept of taxing soda or junk food to reduce consumption. Various state and local governments have passed or are considering such taxes. But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took care to underscore that, while worth studying, "there is no proposal for a federal tax" at this time. She said that for now the concept "may be a strategy others want to deploy."

The recommendations released Tuesday address a nation in which the children most at risk statistically are African-American girls, Hispanic boys, Southerners and those born to women who smoke, have diabetes or are themselves overweight.

The task force aims to bring more fruit and vegetables into children's diets at home and school while reducing sugar and fat intake, and increasing children’s access to safe places to walk and exercise.

The report also links the problem to marketing, genetics, possible environmental and possible chemical factors, school lunch programs, food prices and urban "food deserts."

The private sector responded favorably to the tone of the report, which included input from a dozen agencies and more than 2,500 public comments.

"We look forward to strengthening the role of self-regulation as a way to improve the balance of foods and beverages advertised to kids," Elaine D. Kolish, director of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, said in a statement. The initiative, launched in 2006 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, includes 16 soda, fast food, candy and packaged-food manufacturers.

Among the findings and recommendations:

  • Babies who are breastfed for at least nine months are significantly less likely to become obese.
  • The government should expand research already under way into possible links between certain plastics and other chemicals and obesity.
  • The effectiveness of a junk food tax could depend on its severity. Studies of current state-levied soda taxes suggest they haven’t had much impact on adolescent or adult weight, but experts studying the impact of tobacco taxes think higher junk food tax rates could reduce consumption.
  • Entertainment companies should voluntarily limit licensing of popular characters to nutritious food and drinks.
  • Health insurance plans should cover prevention, assessment and care for obese children.
  • The government should spend more money and take a more hands-on role in putting healthier food in schools and get more fresh vegetables and fruits into poor urban areas.
  • The government should consider how targeted agricultural subsidies might improve fruit and vegetable affordability or consumption.
  • Schools should be sensitive to stigmas on children who receive subsidized meals.
  • The Agriculture Department should update its Food Pyramid to better educate consumers about healthy eating.
  • New limits on children’s programming may be worth considering, but children also get food cues from non-children’s programming, billboards, the Internet and other sources.

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