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Federal panel’s urgent call to reduce sugar in diet could set off lobbying fight

Recommendations from an influential federal nutrition panel could set up the latest fight between snack lobbyists and food regulators, as government advisers say a “dramatic paradigm shift” is needed to curb obesity in the US.

The federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended reducing sugar in the American diet and taxing soda in their latest report issued on Thursday.

The committee also recommended a lower intake of red and processed meats, but reversed earlier guidance on limiting dietary cholesterol.

But it is the recommendation on sugar that is likely to pique the interest of soda and snack makers who have already undertaken significant public relations campaigns in response to research linking sugar consumption to poor health.

“Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence,” the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report concluded.

The panel cited urgency to change the American diet, calling obesity’s consequences “devastating”.

“The economic and social costs of obesity and other diet- and physical activity-related chronic disease conditions are enormous and will continue to escalate if current trends are not reversed,” the panel said.

The 15-member panel is made up of professors, doctors and nutritionists. The committee has issued guidelines every five years since 1980, often with dramatic consequences on what Americans eat. The panel’s recommendations could impact what the government asks schools to include in lunches, or what is encouraged for families on federal food subsidies, such as the Women, Infants and Children food program.

The panel’s emphasis on reducing sugar, and recommendation to tax soda, is likely to raise the hackles of the beverage industry. Already, calls from local and state politicians to tax soda have resulted in enormous lobbying campaigns against the proposals. Limiting exposure to sugary drink marketing and encouraging Americans on government food programs to reduce sugar was also suggested.

As of 2010, 33 states already charged sales tax on sodas, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But medical leaders, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Tom Frieden, have said it’s not enough to dissuade consumers from drinking sodas. Freiden and others are proposed a 1 cent per ounce tax, which could potentially increase the price of 20 ounces of soda by up to 20%. That rate was approved by voters in Berkeley, California, in November 2014. Berkeley is the nation’s only city with a soda sin-tax.

Even when not directly threatened by taxation, an effort whose stated purpose is to deter consumers from buying softdrinks, the soda industry gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to fight obesity in cities around America.

The earliest soda tax in recent memory likely comes from former New York governor David Paterson. In 2008, he proposed taxing soda at 18%, a level some researchers said would effectively deter people from drinking soda, but proved a contentious topic when jobs and grocery bills were on the line.

PepsiCo threatened to move its world headquarters out of the state, and the American Beverage Association spent heavily to stop the proposal – shelling out $9.4m to oppose the effort almost twice what health advocates spent, the New York Times reported.

Paterson’s proposal, like others that came after, failed.

In 2010, voters in Washington state shot down a proposal to close a budget gap with a soda and candy tax. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to limit sugary drink intake in 2012, with a proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks, and Richmond, California also made an effort the same year, proposing a soda tax.

Almost half of all American adults, around 155m, are overweight or obese. Around 117m Americans have one or more preventable, chronic disease, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

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