Commissioner Asks New Yorkers to Support a Healthy Choice

This open letter to New Yorkers was sent to the 270,000 people who have signed up for the state's Citizen Contact updates.

Fellow New Yorker:

Do you feel that special interests stack the deck against you and your children's best interests?

I do, particularly when it comes to personal health. Lobbyists and trade associations are spending huge sums on advertising campaigns designed to hoodwink you about the No. 1 common habit among obese New York adults and children – drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.

I have been a physician in New York for 30 years; I treated patients in the Bronx at St. Barnabas Hospital and was president of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. In January 2007, I became State Health Commissioner, and now I consider every New Yorker to be my patient. As a physician, I've had to tell patients they have diabetes, which leads to lifelong struggles against its complications and costs.

Studies by the American Dietetic Association, Yale University and others show that nearly all people struggling with weight problems drink at least one can of soda or sports drink a day, and many have more. These drinks are cheap, readily available and taste good.

Ads pushing these drinks are inescapable – television, radio, Internet, billboards, magazines, newspapers, Twitter and Facebook. But the ads don't show you the truth behind this sugar habit – higher rates of dental cavities, overweight and obesity in young people developing into lifelong health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart trouble and joint pain for adults.

Many New Yorkers don't realize that sixty percent of us are obese or overweight. As a physician, I've seen obesity overtake the lives of too many people. Consequences of this epidemic are so serious that the Surgeon General has estimated that obesity is associated with 112,000 deaths each year and poor diet and physical inactivity cause up to 365,000 deaths per year.

Obesity comes with a hefty price tag, as well. In New York, we spend approximately $7.6 billion each year to treat people with obesity-related illnesses – approximately 80 percent of which is paid by taxpayer-funded health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Like many other doctors in the state, I support Governor Paterson's proposed excise tax of a penny per ounce on high-calorie sugary soft drinks. Pure fruit juice would not be taxed, nor would milk or drinks with 10 or fewer calories in an 8-ounce serving.

The $450 million that would be raised by the tax this year would be dedicated to health care and would prevent deeper cuts to health care services. Going forward, we expect this tax to raise $1 billion for health care each year

Governor Paterson understands the importance of this tax as one of the tools in our arsenal to fight obesity. The Governor spoke about this proposal on Monday, and you can view his remarks online.

We all know the state is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis and doesn't have the money for a lot of things this year. But we can make a major change in public health to protect our children's futures. Let's make New York the first state to say "yes" to a healthier future. Please ask your legislators to support the sugar-sweetened beverage tax.


Dr. Richard F. Daines, M.D., Commissioner
New York State Department of Health