by Marion Nestle
Apr 9 2009

The argument for soda taxes

Kelly Brownell of the Yale Rudd Center and Tom Friedan of the New York City Health Department write that taxes on sodas make sense as a way to get people to consume less of them (New England Journal of Medicine, April 8).  Cutting down on sugary drinks is the first thing to do to control weight.  Brownell and Friedan lay out the arguments for and against soda taxes and conclude that this approach has significant potential for improving health. Take a look at the paper and see if you agree.

In the meantime, Corby Kummer at the Atlantic Food Channel writes about what’s happening in Washington on this very issue.  And David Katz responds to comments from the Beverage Association about the paper (hint: they didn’t like it).

  • You may want to know that the Danish Government resently put forward a proposal for changing the taxes on soft drinks. The new law is very much expected to be passed.
    The tax on sugary soft drinks will increase by 0.24 DKK per liter, while the duty on sugar-free soft drinks decreased by 0.34 DKK per liter.
    From an obesity point of view we are expecting this to have a possitive effect. I’m hopeful that we rather quickly will have data on the impact. And we would be pleased to share these.
    All the best
    Morten S Meyer
    Danish Cancer Society

  • I am all for reducing soda intake among children and adults alike. The idea of taxing an item (like alcohol or cigarettes or soda) in order to artificially raise the price to make it less appealing might or might not be a sound one. I don’t imagine the multi-billion dollar soda companies will roll over and play dead, allowing their sales to drop like a rock. More likely they will decrease their costs, change advertising strategies or change soda formulations to ingredients even less costly and possibly more addicting or detrimental to health, thus recouping their income at the expense of their consumers.

    And what of the taxes themselves? Our government is not known in its current form to spend wisely. Will the increased income be used to further restrict healthful foods some are denied legal access to, such as raw milk?

  • Lindsay

    I once read that they were only going to tax regular pop, not diet. Does this hold true still? Ironically diet pop is worse for you. If they are going to tax it, they should tax all of it.

    I totally agree with the tax though. And hope the govt. uses it wisely for much needed things in the food industry, such as stricter HAACP regulations, etc.

  • RawlinD

    Nice idea. Very politically correct. Makes everyone feel like they’re ‘fighting obesity.’

    Actual effect on obesity: I’m guessing about zero, or less.

    Sort of like posting calorie counts on menus, doing obesity ‘education’ in schools in the community, encouraging kids to ‘exerciseandeatmorefruitsandvegetables’.

    Actual, real-world effect on obesity. About zero.

    Although maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to demonstrate that one is ‘fighting the obesity’ epidemic.

    Never mind if it actually works or not.

  • Taxing soda pop is a good idea, and it needs to be part of a larger plan to reverse obesity rates. For example, some of the money generated could be used for improving play areas for kids and adults. I recently visited Guangzho, China and noticed well-used large outdoor play structures where “adults” could play and exercise. In some ways our country has become too much about work and not enough outdoor, family, fun play time. As research demonstrates –you’ve got to move it to lose it and keep it off!

  • Daniel Ithaca, NY

    ‘He who makes the gold makes the rules’
    Of course we could stop subsidizing obesity through the USDA’s Farm Bill subsidies of corn syrup too! That just seems like it would be a first step.
    USDA, what are you paying to promote sugar consumption or good health. Pick one.
    If tax-payer funded subsidies stopped flowing, “sugar” prices would be higher, at least for corn syrup.

    Currently Food Stamp, now called ‘SNAP’, recipients are allowed to purchase soda, candy and many other foods of low nutritional value. While it would be difficult and unwise to push the restrictions too far, it is clear that soda, aka “liquid candy” or “sugar water”, has no redeeming nutritional value. So why does a big chunk of tax-payer money get funneled to soda/candy companies? No good reason.

    Tax sweetened beverages:
    After reading “Food Fight” by Kelly Brownell, et. al:

    I agree with the author who compares different places that have tried junk food taxes. It seems that to have any success with this the tax must:
    a) create revenue used to promote health, perhaps specifically prevention of: obesity, cancer, etc and especially promoting children’s nutritional health
    b)must NOT be used as a source of revenue for state/federal shortfalls
    With the focus on the benefits of the tax revenue–in helping people, especially children, it may be seen as less of a burden on those who still choose soda/sweetened beverages frequently. If this tax is seen as beneficial after being passed into law and shows promise both in a reduction of soda, or even”sugar” consumed as well as a measured result on Americans health, it will less likely to be repealed, as has been the fate of other poorly thought out soda taxes.

    If our goal is to reduce consumption it is just obvious to stop promoting corn syrup production and to stop paying for it (SNAP).
    A sweetened beverage tax seems like the third part in a series, but a well planned approach to this will work!

  • Marisa

    I am not usually in favor of a tax to get people to stop doing something that is perfectly legal, such as taxing cigarettes. However, if the government is going to tax cigarettes on the argument that it will get people to quit, then it should tax soda as well, because it is something that is bad for people and should be taxed out of usage.

  • Jon

    This is actually one of the points of taxation, to discourage certain economic activity. It won’t take long for the corn, biotech, and sugar lobbies to denounce this, though. Along with the restaurant lobby. (Sodas are so cheap, they’re the most profitable item next to water on a restaurant menu.)

    I will say, you really don’t need to look much farther than soft drinks to find out why there are now seven-year-olds with type 2 diabetes. Soft drinks start to look like a Theory of Everything for nutrition and chronic disease. (Especially since it’s now been shown that glycated proteins are also atherogenic, especially glycated lipoproteins.)

    Soft drinks have as much value to the cook as they do to the nutritionist: Less than zero. I found that dropping soft drinks was the easiest part of my autodidactic HDL-raising diet (My cholesterol is naturally low, and my family history includes diabetes, hence the HDL-raising diet. It worked…too well, and I started to get all sorts of side effects from the sudden steroid rush.), followed by dropping trans fats; not surprisingly, these two “foods” have the worst reputation among restaurant critics. (I’ll admit I still use sugar, refined grains, alcohol, and juices on occasion; I see no reason to completely forbid anything, and all of those still have some value.)

  • Andy T

    While such a tax addresses the demand side of the equation, it’s unclear if it will help to reduce the supply and availability of sweetened drinks. As mentioned in earlier comments, a systemic approach is necessary to constrain the supply (or rather oversupply) of sweetened drinks through revisions of the farm bill and measures that target manufacturers in addition to consumer education and sales taxes.

    Another ethical consideration is the impact of such a “sin tax” on the less well-off. Such taxes tend to be regressive – i.e. the biggest burden is usually on those who are worse affected and least able to afford additional expenses on their consumption of the taxed product, be it cigarettes, alcohol, or soda. This inequity in tax burden is worsened if the tax revenues are not re-distributed back to the same population for obesity prevention/treatment programs but are instead diverted towards the state/federal budget shortfalls.

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