by Marion Nestle
Sep 17 2009

Soda taxes: the new frontier

If I read the tea leaves correctly, soda taxes are on their way.  Kelly Brownell and Tom Friedan broached the idea earlier this year.  York state tried and failed to implement them.

Since then, as we learn more about the role of sugary drinks as a factor in obesity, public health support for the idea is growing.  Last week, Jim Knickman, President of NYSHealth wrote an op-ed in the New York Post in favor of the taxes.    Now the New England Journal of Medicine – as prestigious a journal as they come – is publishing another article from  Brownell, Frieden, et al on the public health and economic benefits of taxing sugary soft drinks.

And the evidence accumulates daily.  Children and adults who habitually drink sodas are more likely to be obese and have worse diets than those who do not.  The latest study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a policy research group at UCLA makes just this point.

The study found that 41 percent of children (ages 2 – 11), 62 percent of adolescents (ages 12 – 17) and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day. Regardless of income or ethnicity, adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

The result of all this is what the New York Times is calling in its print headline, “tempest in a soda bottle.”  I’d call it a Category 5 hurricane.

As I love to point out, it did not used to be OK for kids to drink sodas all day long.  Now it is.  Taxes might encourage some changes in these recent practices.  It will be interesting to watch this idea progress.

Later in the day: as for pushback, here is a link to the ad from the “Americans Against Food Taxes.”  Why am I thinking this is an astroturf client of the Center for Consumer Freedom?  Just a wild guess.

  • Holly

    Correct me if I’m over-simplifying the matter, but wouldn’t this mean that diet sodas would be the cheaper option? I don’t know that I approve of any measure that encourages their consumption.

  • While I agree that something needs to change, I just don’t think that the American people are open to one more new idea at the moment, especially if can be framed by the opposition as costing them more money.
    Here is what I have been thinking….The ratio of added sugar to total volume of liquid in any recipe can be measured and stated as a percentage or number called “brix”, much like the formula to determine the proof in alcohol. The proof number is used to regulate and tax alcohol.
    I think that we can apply this same thinking and legal precedent to convince people that we should identify the percentage of added sugar in products and slap that number on the can/bottle/cup/menu board for all to see. We then could cap that “sugar proof” number at the level it is today. Next we slowly lower that number, the percentage of added sugar, over a period of time allowing the whole country to wean itself from the super sweet levels we are at today.
    More @

  • We could nickname the sugar index the “Sindex” of a given product?

    How about getting rid of the government sugar subsidy? Let prices go up, way up and consumption will go down. I don’t know if an additional 10 cents per can or bottle will stop someone from drinking a pop each day.

  • Hylton


    I suppose I’m being too much of a purist about this issue, but taxing high fructose corn syrup products while simultaneously subsidizing the corn that enables it just seems backwards.

    This is already done with cigarettes, I don’t smoke, but my tax dollars goes toward tobacco subsidies and smokers pay again through taxes. People who don’t eat pork for religious reasons pay for its production through subsidies. People who don’t eat factory-produced meat for ethical or environmental reasons pay for its production though subsidies. People who don’t drink soda for health pay reasons pay for it through subsidies. Sure, there’s not guarantee that tax dollars will support everything you want, people without children still pay for public education, but the argument that these kinds of subsidies on consumables contribute to overall social good is tenuous.

    It seems like this soda tax is going to make diet soda for children a more attractive option because no calorie artificial sweeteners are likely to get a free pass. Why wouldn’t they? There are no calories after all? Or there really enough data tot convict 0 calorie beverages as making people obese? If all soft drinks are taxed this raises the question: What is the real goal? To tax empty calories? Or to just tax soda because “we” don’t like it and it’s an easy cash grab for government? We aren’t willing to cut spending by taking on big farming companies who get subsidies and incentives, but the American consumer is an easy target to raise revenue.

    Everyone knows subsidies are a problem, Michael Pollan calls attention to it as a health care issue (Big Food vs. Big Insurance), environmentalists site subsidies as promoting wasteful practices and pollution. Why does political discussion continue to dance around the subsidy issue?

    Before we get into taxing calories or building local food movements by insisting on more subsidies and putting more layers on an already burdened system, it would be beneficial if food advocates with voices that can be heard would leave aside their pet campaigns for a moment and bring loud collective pressure on getting politicians to reform the current farm subsidies systems.

    I would like them abolished personally, but perhaps there is actually a good reason for their continued existence, I have just never heard this argument presented because politicians don’t seem to want to touch the topic.

  • The tax should be levied on the manufacturers, not the consumers.
    Think “Calorie Offsets”, much like carbon offsets in the industrial sector.


  • Josh


    I am some what confused by your comment. Why would getting rid of the sugar subsidy make prices for sugar go up? It seems to me that it would be the other way around. Also, you should know that the government already plays a huge part in making sugar prices expensive as it is basically impossible to import. There is supposedly a sugar shortage on the way, as well as an increasing amount of corn being turned into biofuels. Maybe the problem will work itself out without any more government interaction

  • Keep the tariffs and the limited quantity on imported sugar. If it’s bad for us, why would we allow it free import to our population? We don’t with alcohol.

    Take away the subsidies (and keep out cheap foreign sugar), the sugar producers will be forced to raise prices to make up the difference. Not to mention it saves the taxpayers money as well. Let them replace the former “subsidy” with a higher price that only the ones who consume the product pay.

  • Noah


    I wonder about possibilities for numeric estimation of apparent sweetness, and if the artificial sweetener industry uses such a measure? A brix/apparent sweetness ratio might let consumers with a sweet tooth compare different products.


    Doesn’t the corn industry have a stake in our tariffs on foreign sugar sources, sugar cane, for example? Corn production has it’s own drawbacks.


    One of my kitchen experiments was a 3000 calorie cup of watery stuff (fat, sugar, water, emulsifier, heat, and a blender). One measure of sugar content is it’s ratio to complex carbs. That’s for naturally occurring sugar, obviously, the ratio is not useful for describing products with added sugar and quasi-complex carbs like maltodextrin.

  • @Noah

    I am sure you know that every product produced in a factory has a master recipe. Each ingredient is represented as a ratio or %. Added sugar and corn syrup are easy to identify. I would imagine other ingredients could also be placed into that same category.
    I may not understand your blender explanation but did you try to measure after everything was already mixed together?

  • Why not just end corn subsidies? Isn’t it an admission of political defeat to subsidise the crop and tax the end product?

  • Pingback: Best of the Web – Gooseberry Fool: Foodie links for 21 September | Roaming Tales()

  • Pingback: Best of the Web – Gooseberry Fool: Foodie links for 21 September | Standby London Air Flights()

  • Brian

    Why is sugar not assigned a % recommended daily on nutrition labels?
    FDA says between 40-50g of added sugar (fructose) per day. a 12oz can of Coke has 39g.
    Gee…you think Coke doesnt want their nutrition label to say each can has 100% of your daily sugar intake?? Food lobbies are just as bad as tobacco and oil.