CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To reduce West Virginia's obesity rate, the state should consider an educational campaign funded by a small tax on sugary beverages, an obesity expert said Friday.
"We're not trying to get people to drink less soda . . . by pricing it out of the market" Dewey Caruthers told those who attended the West Virginia Obesity Conference Friday at the Charleston Marriott. "We want to get a reduction in obesity and reduction in soda consumption [and it] is not going to be through laws. It's going to be through education."
Caruthers suggested that the state tax sugary beverages one-tenth of a penny per ounce and use the approximately $8 million a year it would create to fund an educational campaign aimed at reducing obesity.
Caruthers, a South Charleston native, is a founder of the West Virginia Raze campaign against teenage smoking. He now runs a consulting agency in Florida.
West Virginia already has a soft drink tax of 1 penny per 16.9 fluid ounces. That tax benefits the West Virginia University School of Medicine.
Many public health experts are campaigning for a tax of 1 penny per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages, Caruthers said.
"It's been tried many places and it's failed," he said.
One reason that sugar-sweetened beverage, or SSB, taxes are failing is because the people are against having the money benefit government's general funds, rather than being used to prevent obesity, Caruthers said.
"I'm here to tell you that there are a lot of people out there who do not want to grow government under any circumstance," he said.
The state's current soft-drink tax hasn't changed much since it was implemented in 1951, said Mark Muchow, deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Revenue. The tax predates much of the rationale that health experts use for advocating such a tax, he said. In 2011, the tax brought in $16.2 million for the WVU medical school.
Caruthers proposes using the money raised with the one-tenth of a penny per ounce tax to fund a campaign aimed at changing the state's behavior and culture as it relates to obesity. He also recommends including a parental-responsibility component to the education, as well as a toolkit for obesity that parents can reference.
"Parents are saying, 'How can you help me raise a healthy child in today's society, because it's very difficult,'" he said.