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Taxing sugary drinks in W.Va. advised

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.

Besides parents, the campaign should target pediatricians, Caruthers said. A national study indicated that 40 percent of pediatricians were uncomfortable bringing up obesity to the parents of their patients, he said.

Caruthers recommends the state consider doing a cost analysis of implementing the one-tenth of a penny per ounce tax.

The tax should have a five-year sunset and results should be reviewed after that time, he said.

"If we can't show results in five years, we don't deserve the money after five years," he said. "It's that simple."

By 2030, if nothing changes, West Virginia's obesity rate will be 60 percent and obesity care will be at least a third of the state's total health-care expenditures, he said.

Also at Friday's obesity conference, the group KEYS 4 HealthyKids announced that it will add nine new "communities," or agencies, to its network that aims to address the obesity epidemic with policy and environmental changes.

Those communities are the cities of Richwood and Ripley; the Regional Education Service Agency 1 in Beckley; Clay Elementary; Clay County Schools; Hamlin Elementary; Build it Up, a summer program where young people work with organizations that are making community sustainability projects; the Raleigh County Community Council; and Step by Step, a nonprofit group that aims to help families who are facing poverty.

KEYS 4 HealthyKids, supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is a partnership of local business, education, social services and health agencies that aims to reduce the rates of childhood obesity with policy and environmental changes.

The communities will receive a toolkit, technical support and a mentor.

"I am very excited to be able to work with these nine new communities to change where they live, learn, work and play, so that children can grow up in an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle," Dr, Jamie Jeffrey, a pediatrician and the KEYS 4 HealthyKids' director, said in a prepared statement. "The community where a child grows up has a tremendous impact on their risk of developing obesity."

The annual obesity conference is sponsored by Charleston Area Medical Center, the CAMC Institute, the CAMC Weight Loss Center, KEYS 4 HealthyKids and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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