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The University of Vermont Medical Center has been outstanding in its support of a two cent per ounce excise tax on sugary drinks to reduce obesity in Vermont. Stephen Leffler, the Chief Medical Officer for the hospital, has been a tireless advocate testifying before a legislative committee, speaking at a press conference launching the campaign and recently posting the following on the Medical Center's blog.

Why We Support a Tax on Sugary Beverages

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Montpelier and advocate for a tax on sugary drinks. You might wonder why a physician would get involved in a tax debate? It’s simple. It’s because sugary drinks are a significant health concern for Vermonters.

Obesity and diabetes are major health issues for Vermonters and our country. Sugary drinks are linked to both conditions. The future of health care is partnering with and engaging our patients to keep them as healthy as possible. We know that the long-term health of our patients is influenced more by their actions and choices during daily life, versus what happens when they’re in our exam rooms. Patients who make good choices in terms of smoking, exercise and diet will live longer and healthier lives and consume less health care resources. That is how you drive down health care costs.

Public policies can be powerful tools to aide in these efforts. Policies, such as taxes, can help our patients make better, healthier choices. Cigarette taxes have proven this. As the cigarette tax has increased, smoking rates have dropped. Would any of us consider turning the clock back on that and go back to the days when nearly 40 percent of us were smoking $2 packs of cigarettes? If a 1-liter soda costs more than a pint of milk or water, more people will make the healthier choice. Why does that matter? Because sugary drinks are a major factor in obesity. Researchers estimate that sugar-added drinks account for at least one-fifth of the weight gained by the U.S. population between 1977 and 2007.

Consumption of sugary drinks is the single largest category of caloric intake for U.S. children, surpassing milk in the late 1990s. Think about that for a second. Sugary drinks account for more calories than fruits, vegetables, dairy products and healthy protein sources. Increasing the cost of sodas and energy drinks will help people make better choices. They will likely consume healthier, cheaper alternatives.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with an occasional soda. It should be a treat. Like having an ice cream cone. Today, many people do not think of a soda like a treat. Most people trying to eat a healthy diet would not have six ice cream cones a day but may not think twice about drinking a six pack of soda. That could be more than 1,000 empty calories with no nutritional benefits.

I grew up in a small town in Vermont and my parents owned a general store. I spent many hours of my life stocking coolers with sodas, milk, water and so on. I witnessed Vermonters making choices about what to buy every day. They were smart with their money. Making sugary drinks more expensive will help them be even smarter with their money and their health.

What’s more, the money raised from a sugary beverages tax can be used to help teach Vermonters and their children how to eat healthier, and actually make more nutritious foods more easily available. For example, we could direct funds to expand the impact of food access programs like Vermont Farm to Family, NOFA Vermont’s Farm Share program, Green Mountain Farm to School, and Vermont FEED – not to mention new programs. Revenue could also be used to offset the increased costs incurred from obesity. I firmly believe this tax is the right thing for our patients and our state.

Stephen M. Leffler, MD, FACEP, is the Chief Medical Officer at the UVM Medical Center, former Medical Director of the Emergency Department, and has been a practicing physician for 20 years. He is also a Professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. He grew up in Brandon, Vermont.

Sources

Block G. Foods contributing to energy intake in the US: Data from NHANES III and NHANES 1999–2000. J Food Comp Anal 17 (2004): 439-47.

Woodward-Lopez*, Janice Kao and Lorrene Ritchie, To what extent have sweetened beverages contributed
to the obesity epidemic? Public Health Nutrition p. 4 (2010)

Malik, et al., DIABETES CARE, VOLUME 33, NUMBER 11, NOVEMBER 2010

Diana Cook, North Carolina

As a veteran volunteer with the American Heart Association, Diana Cook has been involved in a myriad of ways with the organization over the years. As a Charlotte Heart Walk team leader, she led her work team several years in a row – and every year provided countless volunteers to help with the walk. As a You’re the Cure Advocate, and as a NC Advocacy Coordinating Committee member, she has volunteered for countless National and State Lobby Days, trainings, and advocacy opportunities.

There is more to Diana than just her volunteerism. She has experience personal loss at the hands of cardiovascular disease and stroke. After losing her father to emphysema, then a dear friend who had just turned 40 passed away due to a sudden stroke two weeks later, she spent a long time of wondering why her friend’s symptoms had gone misdiagnosed. Diana connected with Betsy Vetter and found her passion with AHA and a home with You’re the Cure. As her work with YTC began, Diana was able to join the Smoke-Free Mecklenburg team as a co-chair, and worked with that initiative promoting smoke-free both locally and then at the state level. It was her friend, and her father, who kept Diana engaged with the American Heart Association and kept her inspired to make a difference.

If you were to ask Diana why she volunteers with the AHA, she would tell you that beginning with her Heart Walk experience and including her time as an advocate with You’re the Cure, her experience has become personal. "Advocacy was the "rescue," if you will, that I needed during a traumatic time after my Dad and best friend died," she says. "It helped me to put my energy into something positive that honored them at the same time.  The experience was effecting a positive change for our state of North Carolina to get smoke free restaurants passed and providing vital information to women on heart and stroke disease."

It is advocates like Diana, who join us in You’re the Cure and see what an infinite difference they make in the lives of those around them, that make our network as strong and as passionate as it is. Thank you to Diana, and to all of our advocates, for making a difference and saving lives.

On February 3, the Advanced Placement Government class from Eastlake High School in Sammamish, WA traveled to Olympia to join the American Heart Association / American Stroke Association for its 2015 Lobby Day. Eastlake’s AP students joined other advocates including heart and stroke survivors, board members, physicians, and parents to advocate for heart-health policies. It was particularly impactful to have students advocating for funding for youth tobacco prevention and Safe Routes to School at this year’s Lobby Day.

The students began their day with a rally along Capitol Blvd. waving signs to build awareness for the need for increased funding for Safe Routes to School. With just one in four projects currently funded, the students went to work to ensure students across the state can safely walk and bike to school.

The students worked hard to prepare for this day of advocacy. Their preparation showed in special meetings with their district’s Senator, Andy Hill and with Representative Marcus Riccelli, who sponsors the AHA-supported bill to screen all newborns for critical congenital heart disease.              

Legislators, staff and volunteers all noted the students’ professionalism and enthusiasm. These youth advocates made a great impression on the decision makers who have the power to improve health for youth across Washington.

Gail Mates, Mid-Atlantic Affiliate

I spent most of my life watching heart disease strike family members. Both grandfathers died of heart attacks, my father suffered from several and even my mother had an enlarged heart and hypertension that made her susceptible. When my father had a stroke, I witnessed firsthand the depression and fear that he felt.  It was heart wrenching to watch.  

In my own life, health issues were mounting. High cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, sleep apnea, esophagus surgery and a metabolic syndrome were just a few of the hurdles I faced.   I was digging my grave with a knife and fork!
 
I knew my life was going downhill, but nurturing was something I did for others, not myself. It wasn’t until my daughter pled with me to make a change that I finally listened.  My daughter told me through tears that I was killing myself and that she wanted me to be here for her children.  

Diet was the first area I tackled. I began eating ‘live’ foods, shopping on the outside of the grocery store instead of the inner aisles of canned and boxed foods. Exercise came slower, but it was the pace I wanted to set because I knew that doing too much, too soon would backfire. I started with 5 minutes of exercise a week and was soon able to fulfill my dream of completing a 5k run. 

Almost 60 pounds lighter, I am changing my heart every step of the way. My diabetes, high cholesterol and triglycerides, sleep apnea, and esophagus are all great now!   I don’t make excuses; I just do what I need to do.  If it’s snowing outside and I can't get to the gym, I simply walk around my living room and bedroom.  If you can make it easy, you can find a way.

There’s one thing that keeps me going – the smile on my daughter’s face.   I plan to be here for a long long time. 

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