A tax on snacks and soft drinks could be just the ticket to keeping Americans slim and trim, researchers said on Friday.

A study found that people would support a small tax, and further study suggested it would raise a lot of money to fight obesity.

"With obesity rates soaring and the costs of diet-related diseases in the stratosphere, it is essential that government fund major campaigns to promote healthful diets and physical activity."

"One way to obtain funding is to apply small taxes to foods that undermine health."

"Small taxes on soft drinks, candy, gum and snack foods are a sensible way to fund health-promotion programmes. These programmes could result in better health and lower healthcare costs."

Writing in the American Journal of Public Health, it was found that 17 states, including the large states of California and New York, as well as Chicago and the District of Columbia already have special taxes on soft drinks or snacks.

It's been estimated that a national, one-cent tax on 12-ounce soft drinks could generate about $1.5 billion every year. A one-cent tax per pound on chips, candy and other snack foods could raise $124 million and a tax on fats and oils could bring in $190 million. It was said this cash could go a long way towards promoting exercise and healthy eating.

A campaign in Clarksburg, West Virginia, encouraged consumers to switch from higher fat to lower fat milk to reduce intakes of saturated fat. After the 7-week campaign, the market share of one percent or fat-free milk increased from 18 percent to 41 percent.

It is said the National Cancer Institute spends about $1 million a year on media promotion of its "five-a-day" campaign to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables.

In contrast, the soft drink industry alone spends more than 600 times that much on advertising each year, and the restaurant industry spends more than $3 billion annually on advertising. Coke and Diet Coke are supported by $154 million; Lay's potato chips by $56 million; and Kool-Aid beverages by $19 million.

The money saved by promoting diet and exercise is easily calculated, Poor diet and physical inactivity in the United States are estimated to cause about 310,000 to 580,000 deaths annually due to cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes," they wrote, citing a 1993 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The economic cost of diet-related diseases has been conservatively estimated to be at least $71 billion annually," they added, referring to a 1999 U.S.

Department of Agriculture report.