Tax Sugar to Save Lives

Teresa Abrahamson-Richards

We see evidence of sugar’s devastating health effects every day. Take a close look. Over there it’s rotting a child’s teeth, over there it’s taking a diabetic’s foot, and, hey, over there it’s costing the clinic thousands of dollars to treat preventable conditions. What can we do about it? A great place to start is implementing a single policy that will reduce sugary beverage consumption by 13%, substantially reduce diabetes and obesity, and provide a continuous funding source for community wellness programs. Luckily for us, that policy exists: a sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

Of course, there is a catch. So far, no state, local, or tribal government has been successful in passing legislation to implement this kind of tax. Corporate interests in the beverage industry have spent enormous amounts of money to fight every single attempt to do so. They sent representatives all the way to the Navajo Nation this summer to fight a junk food tax proposal. These companies do not care about the health and wellbeing of impoverished minority populations. Historically marginalized groups make up a huge share of their profits, so they continue to hit us hard with marketing and to distort the truth about the negative consequences of an overly sugary diet.

Still, we have reasons to be optimistic. Communities are not backing down, and the evidence supporting sugar-sweetened beverage tax policies continues to pile up. Tribes are well-positioned to be the first success story in this saga. Here are several reasons why:

  • We have strong leadership. Being first takes guts. Leaders are needed who will say, "Enough is enough. Diabetes is killing our people, and we need to take decisive action." In Indian country we have leaders not just in tribal government, but also among our elders, community members, and youth. Those with the skills to engage their communities and build support on the ground are out there. They can guide their tribes to success.
  • We are not afraid of bullies. Whether it’s the NFL, oil companies, or the federal government, we have experience taking on powerful adversaries with skill, fearlessness, and persistence. This is exactly the attitude it will take to defeat corporate interests like the American Beverage Association who have plenty of money and marketing expertise. The facts are not on their side, and we know how to spot a lie meant to manipulate us.
  • We partner with one another. In order to fight for our rights at the federal level, tribes have developed national partnerships and organizations that put us in conversation with one another. Although the Navajo Nation junk food tax did not pass, the valuable lessons learned are being shared and inspiring many in the food sovereignty movement across Indian country.
  • We are heavily and disproportionately impacted by obesity, diabetes, and lack of access to healthy food. Simply put, the stakes are high for our people. They are even higher for our children, many of whom experience diet-related health problems ranging from severe dental decay to malnutrition. Especially in rural communities, junk food is both easier to find and less expensive than healthy options. We need clear-cut policy changes with real and quantifiable outcomes to address this problem. A sugar-sweetened beverage tax is such a policy.
  • We remember history. This is an important skill, because one of the only sound arguments against a sugar-sweetened beverage tax is the impact on small business profits. Those with good historical memory, however, know that cigarette taxes did not sink businesses. Businesses adapted. We’ve honed our historical memory working for centuries to make sure that stories, traditions, treaty promises, and genocide aren’t forgotten. Remembering events from the past 50 years is no problem.

Our people and nations are strong and independent. We fight for justice and we stand by our traditions. Tribes have protected our sovereignty by taking control of education systems and fighting illegal adoptions of our children. Our food is an integral part of our cultures, and we need to guard it with the same conviction we lend to these other areas. How we teach our children to eat is a legacy we pass on to them. Taxing the foods that are sickening and killing us is a logical step to reversing the alarming chronic disease trends among our people. Even better, a sugary beverage tax establishes a ready-made funding source that can be used to develop access to healthy food, promote food sovereignty, and develop wellness programs. So, will your tribe be the one to make it happen?

Teresa Abrahamson-Richards (Spokane) is a graduate student at the University of Washington School of Public Health and a research assistant at the Center for Indigenous Health Research. Her work focuses on American Indian early childhood, adolescent, and women’s health. She is passionate about community-driven solutions to improving Native health.

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Anonymous's picture
corn syrup is an issue that also needs to be addressed. it's in everything and if corn was what people used to use to fatten hogs and they did, then it cannot be good for people especially "sugary" drinks that are mostly corn syrup and loaded with calories.
Anonymous's picture
Love this idea. Schools across the country are winning this battle by keeping soda vending machines off campuses and the Big Beverage companies don't fight that because it's shameful to push their $driven agenda when kids are concerned. I think Indian Country should come up with a slick marketing plan that equally shames them:-) Embarrass the hell out of them.
Anonymous's picture
Coca Cola is responsible for more disease related problems like diabetes than any other single corporation. They specifically aim their advertising to the poor while making millions pushing their poison.
rezrunner's picture
As a Native public health professor with experience working as a diabetes program manager prior to my academic career, I disagree with this idea. Although noble in its intent, it is very idealist, and it is a strategy based on a theory that prohibition successfully modifies behavior. Ms. Abrahamson-Richard's proposition is also short sighted at this point in that it requires a background infrastructure to create a taxation revenue system within tribal communities. Many tribes do not have such systems in place. Another consideration that is overlooked is the ratio of sugared beverage purchases made on reservations versus those off-reservation, and thus out of tax jurisdictions. If sodas were purchased for mass-resale at fundraisers, those making such purchases would likely do so at warehouse stores or suppliers who can offer bulk sales at low cost. Off reservation purchases brought into the rez then would require a system of tax collection during the events, which require tribal infrastructure that doesn't exist. Despite the weaknesses in her propositions, Ms. Abrahamson-Richards does a very good job in advocating for consumer information on reservations, and taxation is a way to fund such education. Although it was not explicit in her article, what we eat ourselves, is how we teach our children to eat. We cannot expect legal policies to change our behaviors, the 19th Amendment failed to change alcohol consumption behaviors during the early 20th century. Rather than investing effort into a policy that would create little change, communities need to adopt and embrace a culture of awareness about the foods we eat, and we need to target this awareness at parents, the people who establish baseline eating habits for children who will eventually become parents themselves. - Joe Gladstone, PhD, MPH, New Mexico State University Department of Public Health Science
Anonymous's picture
I find it troubling that there are subsidies and tax credits going to sugar farming while SNAP benefits are being cut.
Wahya7's picture
no way! then this crooked whiteman government will start Taxing all food products! Stupid idea!