In addition to the series of article on long-term outcomes in bariatric surgery, the 2018 special issue of JAMA on obesity, also features several articles discussing the potential role of taxing or otherwise regulating the use of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) as a policy measure to address obesity.
In a first article, Jennifer Pomeranz and colleagues discuss whether or not governments can in fact require health warnings on advertisements for sugar-sweetend beverages. The discussion focuses on an injunction issued by the Ninth Circuit Court on the enforcement of San Francisco’s requirement that sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) advertisements display a health warning statement, finding that this law likely violated the First Amendment rights of advertisers of SSBs.
The background for this court decision was the fact that San Francisco passed a law requiring SSB advertisers to display: “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”
In its decision, the court felt that the proposed warning label was not scientifically accurate, as it focussed exclusively on “added sugar(s)” rather than sugars overall. It appears that there is no scientific evidence suggesting that “added sugars” are any more (or less) harmful than the “natural” sugar occurring in any other foods or beverages).
However, as the authors argue, warning on SSB may well be warranted as
“In addition to being a major source of added sugar in the US diet, the liquid form of SSBs could enable rapid consumption and digestion without the same satiety cues as solid foods. SSBs also contain no relevant ingredients to provide offsetting health benefits, in comparison with sweetened whole grain cereals, nut bars, yogurt, or other foods with added sugars, which can have healthful components. Furthermore, the associations of SSBs with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are each stronger and more consistent than for added sugars in solid foods. In addition, compared with other foods containing added sugars, SSBs are the only source for which randomized controlled trials have confirmed the observational link to weight gain.”
Another point of contention identified by the court was related to the fact that the warning stated harm irrespective of quantity and would have been more accurate had it included the term “overconsumption” or at leas the qualifier “may”.
Here, the authors argue that,
“health risks of SSBs increase monotonically. Thus, use of the word “overconsumption” would not be scientifically accurate because there is no clear threshold effect between SSB consumption and harm. Yet, due to potential individual variation in responses, incorporating the word “may” or “can” would be scientifically accurate and are used in alcohol and smokeless tobacco warnings.”
The third objection by the court was related to the proposed size and rectangular border requirements of the warning, which was considered to be “unduly burdensome” – a point that the authors concede could be dealt with by modify formatting requirements by slightly reducing size, permitting “hairline” borders, or using other methods to ensure prominence and conspicuousness.
.In a second article on the issue of SSBs, Lisa Powell and Matthew Maciejewski discuss the case for taxing SSBs, noting they are the largest contributor of added sugar in the US diet, accounting for approximately 6.5% of total daily calories among adults and 7.3% among youth (ages 2-19 years) and approached 8% to 9% of daily calories among minority populations and 9% to 10% among low-income households. In addition consumption of SSBs have been associated with obesity as well as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dental caries, and osteoporosis.
As the authors point out, for SSB taxes to be effective, the increased cost of SSBs has to be passed on to the consumer (“pass-through) and the consumer has to respond by decreasing their consumption (“price elasticity”). In places where SSB taxes have been implemented (e.g. Mexico), both effects have been seen, suggesting that an SSB tax can indeed change consumer behaviours.
However, as the authors also note, so far there is little evidence directly demonstrating that such changes have translated into actual health outcomes (for obesity or otherwise).
Nevertheless, the authors feel that an SSB tax can effectively decrease the overall consumption of these beverages and should perhaps be extended even further to include all forms of sugary drinks including 100% fruit juice. For this approach to be broadly acceptable, it would also be important to dedicate any revenue from these taxes to specific educational or public health purposes.
Finally, a third article on this issue by John Cawley deals with an interesting “quasi experimental” pass-through effect of SSB taxes at the Philadelphia International Airport, which happens to straddle the city border, with some terminals in Philadelphia that are subject to the beverage tax (1.5 cents per ounce), and other terminals in Tinicum that are not.
The study included 31 stores: 21 on the taxed side of the airport (Philadelphia) and 10 on the untaxed side (Tinicum).
As the authors found, following the implementation of the SSB tax in Philadelphia, the average price of SSBs increased on both the taxed and untaxed side of the airport (albeit more so on the taxed side). Using only data for taxed stores, the percentage of the tax passed on to consumers was 93%. Overall, however, the price difference between the taxed and untaxed stores was about 0.83 cents per ounce (a 55% relative pass-through rate).
Thus, while the tax did have a significant effect on SSB pricing in Philadelphia, it appears that the non-taxed stores simply went along to increase their profit margins accordingly.
Whether or not these changes in pricing had any impact on actual SSB sales or consumption was not reported.
Together, these studies certainly support the statement by Powell and Maciejewski that
“SSB taxes are likely to remain controversial for some time and policy makers will have a number of issues to consider as they formulate and implement fiscal policies.”
“SSB taxation can only be one approach to what must be a multipronged public health strategy to reduce obesity via improved diets and increased activity. The fact that intake of SSBs has declined over the past decade and the obesity epidemic has continued unabated suggests that reducing SSBs alone is not the sole solution. Adults and youth who frequently consume SSBs are more likely to engage in other unhealthy behaviors (eg, inactivity, greater fast-food consumption), so population-based policies specifically targeting these behaviors need to be designed in concert with SSB taxes. Although SSB consumption remains high in the United States, particularly among vulnerable populations, and taxation is a viable tool for curbing its consumption, the long-run intended and unintended effects of SSB tax policy are yet to be determined. The debate on its merits as an effective tool to improve health outcomes will be greatly informed by rigorous evidence on consumption, sugar intake, and body weight both on average and within vulnerable populations (children, minorities, low-income individuals).”
This week, JAMA revisits obesity with a dedicated theme issue, which includes a range of articles on obesity prevention and management (including several on the impact of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and five original long-term studies on bariatric surgery).
In an accompanying editorial, Edward Livingston notes that,
“The approach to the prevention and treatment of obesity needs to be reimagined. The relentless increase in the rate of obesity suggests that the strategies used to date for prevention are simply not working.”
“From a population perspective, the increase in obesity over the past 4 decades has coincided with reductions in home cooking, greater reliance on preparing meals from packaged foods, the rise of fast foods and eating in restaurants, and a reduction in physical activity. There are excess calories in almost everything people eat in the modern era. Because of this, selecting one particular food type, like SSBs, for targeted reductions is not likely to influence obesity at the population level. Rather, there is a need to consider the entire food supply and gradually encourage people to be more aware of how many calories they ingest from all sources and encourage them to select foods resulting in fewer calories eaten on a daily basis. Perhaps tax policy could be used to encourage these behaviors, with taxes based on the calorie content of foods. Revenue generated from these taxes could be used to subsidize healthy foods to make them more affordable.”
Over the next few days, I will be reviewing about the individual articles and viewpoints included in this special issue.
In the meantime, the entire issue is available here.
10 years ago, I was enticed to take up an endowed “Chair” in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta with the task to develop and lead the fledgling bariatric program at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
The decision to move to the University of Alberta from a prestigious Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in obesity at McMaster University, where my research enterprise was moving along just fine, was largely prompted by the Ontario Government’s bumbling indecision (despite all of my considerable and enthusiastic advocacy efforts on behalf of my patients) about promoting much needed bariatric services in Ontario (as a side note, only six weeks after I had signed on with the University of Alberta, the Ontario government, after much to-and-froing, finally did announce substantial funding for a province-wide bariatric program, which continues to this date as the Ontario Bariatric Network).
Despite my sadness at leaving my most wonderful and supportive colleagues at McMaster University, I have not for a moment regretted my move to Edmonton. Not only did I find another set of as supportive colleagues at the University of Alberta but also the committed and dedicated staff within Capital Health (now part of Alberta Health Services), all of which enthusiastically supported the creation of a now world-class academic bariatric program in Edmonton. With well over 100 peer-reviewed publications to show for (with a notable mention to the colleagues who helped develop the Edmonton Obesity Staging System and the 5As of Obesity Management), the academic work in obesity was only a rather small part of my activities as “Chair”.
Together with my colleagues at Alberta Health Services, we supported a total of 5 bariatric clinics across the province, all of which are now up and serving Albertans living with severe obesity – each adapted to local resources and interests. Of these, the Edmonton Adult Bariatric Specialty Program at the Royal Alexandra Hospital of course continues as the flagship program, offering a full suite of behavioural, medical, and surgical treatments for Albertans with severe obesity.
With my move to Edmonton, so did the national office of the Canadian Obesity Network (co-hosted by the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services). As readers will be well aware, this pan-Canadian network of now well over 15,000 obesity researchers, health professionals, trainees, and now 1000s of public supporters, continues to grow and steadfastly pursue its important mission of promoting obesity research, professional education in obesity management, fighting weight bias and discrimination, and advocating for better access to obesity prevention and management for all Canadian children and adults across the continuum of care.
Now, as the 2nd (non-renewable) 5-year term of my appointment as “Obesity Chair” comes to an end, I can only humbly express my sincere thanks to all of my many colleagues and staff at the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services for supporting all of my activities. I also send out a sincere vote of thanks to all my patients, who continue to keep me well grounded in the reality of clinical obesity practice.
While I may no longer hold the “Chair”, I will of course continue serving in my role as Professor at the University of Alberta and fully aim to further pursue all of my academic and clinical activities while continuing to advocate for better access to obesity care for Albertans (and all Canadians). I also plan to continue to in my role as Medical Co-Director of Alberta Health Services’ Obesity Strategy.
As the search now commences for a new endowed “Chair” (and I know that the University will be looking for the best possible candidates from across Canada and the world), I look forward to working closely with whoever takes on this role to continue improving care for Albertan adults and children living with obesity.
This week, I am in Tønsberg, Norway, speaking at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) Collaborating Centres on Obesity Management (COMs).
This is a pan-Euoropean network of over 75, that includes academic, public and private clinics where children and adults with obesity are managed by holistic teams of specialists delivering comprehensive state-of- the-art clinical care.
The EASO-COMs also work closely to ensure quality control, data collection, and analysis as well as for education and research for the advancement of obesity care and obesity science.
Current plans foresee establishing 100 new COMs by 2020. There are also plans to develop an international exchange and mentoring program to increase competencies and treatment knowledge across Europe.
Other important EASO initiatives in this regard include a knowledge transfer series involving e-Learning modules for obesity management based on the Canadian Obesity Network’s initiative with mdBriefCase.
I certainly look forward to networking with and learning from my European colleagues over the next couple of days.
Further details on the criteria for becoming a EASO COM are available here.
The following is a guest post from my Australian colleague Dr. Georgia Rigas, who reports on the recent recognition of obesity as a disease by the Royal Australian College of General Practice (RACGP).
Last week, the Royal Australian College of General Practice (RACGP) President, Dr Seidel recognised obesity as a disease. The RACGP is the first medical college in Australia to do so.
This was exciting news given that we have just observed World Obesity Day a few days ago.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics1, over 60% of Australian adults are classified as having overweight or obesity, and more than 25% of these have obesity [defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) ≥30] (ABS2012). Similarly in 2007, around 25% of children aged 2–16 were identified as having overweight or obesity, with 6% classified as having obesity (DoHA 2008). These are alarming statistics.
The recent published BEACH data for 2015-162, showed that the proportion of Australian adults aged 45-64yo presenting to GPs has almost doubled in the last 15+ years. Worryingly the numbers are predicted to continue rising, with 70% of Australians predicted to have overweight or obesity by 2025. Embarrassingly, the BEACH data also indicated that <1% of GP consultations centred around obesity management.
So obviously what we, as GPs have been doing..,or rather not doing…isn’t working!
The RACGP’s General Practice: Health of the Nation 2017 3report found Australian GPs identified obesity and complications from obesity as one of the most significant health problems Australia faces today and will continue to face in coming years as the incidence of obesity continues to rise.
But what are we doing about it?…. I think the answer is evident… clearly not enough!
Thus, we can only hope that this announcement by the RACGP will have a ripple effect, with other medical colleges in Australia and then the Australian Medical Association following suit.
So what does this mean in practical terms?
For those individuals with obesity (BMI ≥30) with no “apparent” comorbidities or complications from their excess weight…[though you could argue they will develop (if not already) premature osteoarthritis of the weight bearing joints…..] would be eligible for a chronic care plan [government subsidized access to a limited number of consultations with allied health services] given the chronic and progressive nature of the disease.
It also highlights the need for GPs to start screening ALL patients in their practice-young and old;
- for children their parameters need to be plotted on a BMI-for-age chart;
- for adults BMI & waist circumference, taking into account their ethnicity (as different cut- offs for different ethnic groups) and physical activity levels (if they are muscular or not) are important
This powerful statement should help clear any ambivalence.
Why is there a therapeutic inertia when it comes to treating people with obesity?
People with obesity suffer significant degrees of stigma, discrimination and weight bias and as a result may be reluctant to access healthcare. Today, we are giving these patients a voice.
As health care professionals, let’s not forget that the health message needs to change from “lose weight” to “gain health” in recognition that obesity is about more than body weight.
In closing, to effectively and equitably work towards reducing obesity in our communities, we need a balanced combination of both individual and public health measures. This media release by the RACGP shows their commitment to both the primary prevention and the treatment of this life- threatening disease, to ensure better health outcomes and quality of life for all Australians.
Dr Georgia Rigas, MBBS FRACGP
SCOPE certified obesity doctor
Bariatric Medical Practitioner