by Marion Nestle
Dec 18 2008

More and more on the soda tax

Nicholas Kristof writes about it in the New York Times today.  As for me, I did 7 radio interviews on Fox News this morning, including two in Georgia, home of Coca-Cola.  The Fox News folks are shocked, shocked: Where’s personal responsibility?  Where’s parental responsibility?

OK, but what about liquid candy?  And marketing to kids?  And all the research linking frequent consumption of soft drinks to childhood obesity?

OK.  I’m not crazy about regressive taxes, and I think the distinction between sugary soft drinks and sugary juice drinks doesn’t make much sense, but I’m interested to see how this idea works.  Let’s call it an interesting experiment and hope that someone is doing the research.

  • Well, I said this a few days ago, but I’ll say it again and then shut up. We *have* done this before. Not with soda, but with gas, and alcohol, and cigarettes, and all manner of other luxury items. Besides being a regressive tax (bad enough in and of itself), all it does is create a new revenue stream which must then be protected from disruption once the budget has adjusted to always having it. In other words, effort will eventually be made to *encourage* soda drinking, not inhibit it. None of the other taxes I mentioned made a significant difference in the consumption of these commodities; people just sucked it up and paid more. After a comparatively short time, they forgot altogether about the tax and considered the new price the normal price. I see no reason to think that a soda tax will result in anything different. My father-in-law has a favorite saying that pertains: Insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome.

  • It’s all about economic externalties. The price of a carbonated beverage does not include the costs the state pays to treat its citizens for obesity related ailments. This tax (though the money is likely to go to the general revenue fund of New York State) should be allocated to pay for the health care costs of those that drink themselves obese with liquid candy (aka soda).

    That’s sound public policy.

    Rick Tannenbaum

  • Sheila

    If personal responsibility and parental responsibility were working, we would not have epidemic and exploding levels of obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and other diseases so heavily influenced by personal lifestlye choices.
    I don’t know whether the taxes will work either to improve personal choices, but at least we could begin to collect something toward the public costs of paying for Medicaid to treat these diseases for people who claim to not have any money for medical care, but seem to have plenty of money for soda, candy, fast food, beer and cigarettes.

  • Bix

    I’m on the fence about this one. I think it burdens the poor unfairly, and unnecessarily. They will shoulder a relatively larger portion of this tax. It’s regressive.

    One of my commenters said: “Factors like inability, disinterest, and laziness do contribute to food choices, but so do poverty, ignorance, and availability.”

    The same commenter offered to frame the idea differently … why not tax organic and fresh food and use the money to support nutrition education for low-income groups?

    Tax organic and fresh foods and use the money to subsidize organic and fresh food for low-income groups? (Tackle urban food deserts.)

    Tax organic and fresh foods and use the money to subsidize food stamps (SNAP) so they cover more than 3 weeks out of a month?

    Tax the sale of inputs like high fructose corn syrup?

    The poor suffer higher rates of obesity. An “obesity tax” is quite clearly a tax on the poor.

    I just don’t know.

  • Daniel

    I agree with Shiela, if personal and parental responsibility were the answer, we wouldn’t have such an obesity (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and other nutrition related diseases) epidemic in this country.

    If it’s all about personal choice, why do marketers spend billions on Lobbying for the “choice” of law makers, and in marketing to potential consumers?

  • Howard Goldstein

    The one group that always gets the shaft are those that are healthy, follow a good diet and exercise. Why should these individuals be penalized for drinking or eating anything they want. I manage to incorporate sugary sodas, fattening cakes, and fried foods into my diet, yet maintain a healthy weight and exercise routine. In fact, I prefer sugary, non fiber, quickly digestible beverages (like soda) before I do a big workout. It gives me that extra energy I need without the feeling of fullness. Juice could easily substitue this behavior, but as Nestle points out – it makes no difference on a calorie level.

    If the issue is soft drink consumption leading to childhood obesity, why not restrict children from purchasing soda until they reach 18 years of age? Children can drink soda or other sugary foods/beverags under the supervision of an adult/guardian but can’t purchase it on their own.
    Sounds as ridiculous as singaling out a single beverage as the cause and/or solution to our obesity problems.

    Or, maybe have a sliding scale tax on all foods/beverages depending on an individuals health. For example, if a consumer has high cholesterol and wants to buy foods high in saturated fat they will have to spend more money on those foods than a healthy individual. At least that way, the accountability is falling on the one – or many – individual(s) who is/are ruining it for the healthy folk. Yes – we are in an obesity “epidemic” but last time I checked there are still millions of healthy folk in the U.S. that shouldn’t be overlooked.