by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Taxes

Jun 9 2009

The soda tax debate: more of the same

On June 3, the New York Times editorial page endorsed the idea of a tax on sugary sodas, and I especially liked the way the writer placed the issue in context:

Bigger fixes are needed, of course, starting with decent health care. The young need more exercise, healthier lunches and better education on nutrition. All consumers — not just those lucky enough to live near farms or large grocery stores — should be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. While we wait, Congress could impose an excise tax on sugary drinks — one of the main culprits in the obesity epidemic.

Yesterday, the Times published three letters in response, a set remarkable for concisely summarizing the same tired, old arguments.

From the American Beverage Association: “Balancing calories consumed with those expended through physical activity is the critical factor in preventing obesity. Therefore, we must continue to educate Americans about the importance of energy balance.”  Yes, but that won’t be enough.  As I have explained in previous posts, overeating calories has a much greater impact on weight gain than physical activity has in preventing it, and plenty of those overeaten calories come from sugary drinks these days.

Another writer, complaining that personal responsibility and parental responsibility have been lost in this discussion, then goes on to propose precisely the non-personal, societal approaches that the editorial was promoting: “Let’s try removing soda machines from our schools, providing healthier school lunches and ensuring that our gym classes are financed.”

Good ideas.  But I still think soda taxes could be an interesting experiment, well worth a try.

May 20 2009

The temptation of soda taxes

David Leonhardt’s column in the business section of today’s New York Times, takes on soda taxes.  It’s starting point is the New England Journal of Medicine article (see earlier post) by Kelly Brownell at Yale and New York City Health Commissioner Tom Frieden, the newly appointed head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .  Leonhardt notes that such taxes are Pigovian (after the economist Pigou): they discourage unhealthful practices and encourage healthful ones.  As he puts it, “In coldly economic terms, you can make a case that calories are the single best candidate for a Pigovian tax.”

Leonhardt finds arguments for soda taxes compelling.  He tried, but could not get any soda company executive to speak to him about them (why am I not surprised).

I’m intrigued by the accompanying illustration.  In the last ten years, the cost of fruits and vegetables has gone way up.  The cost of sodas is way down.  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  Isn’t now a good time to try to fix it?

Update June 3: Editorial in the New York Times: “While we wait [for bigger fixes], Congress could impose an excise tax on sugary drinks – one of the main culprits in the obesity epidemic.”

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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).

Feb 14 2009

Soda tax: just a public policy argument?

Remember New York State Governor David Paterson’s idea about taxing sodas to raise funds for health care? According to news accounts, New York State Governor, David Paterson, now says his proposal to tax sodas is just a rhetorical device.  He didn’t really think it would ever pass.  He just wanted people to talk about how to do something to prevent childhood obesity.  Chalk this one up as a win for soda companies?

Update February 19: here are Kelly Brownell’s thoughtful comments on the matter.

Dec 17 2008

Bookkeeping: End-of-year columns

I have an op-ed (about the FDA’s handling of melamine in U.S. infant formula) and a Food Matters column (answering questions about salt) in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, and a response to a question from Eating Liberally about Governor Paterson’s proposed tax on soft drinks.  Enjoy!

Dec 16 2008

More on the NY State soft drink tax

Here’s the proposed statute. The relevant section reads:

“Create Sales Tax on Soft Drinks. Imposes an additional 18 percent rate of sales and compensating use taxes on fruit drinks that contain less than seventy percent of natural fruit juice and non-dietetic soft drinks, sodas and beverages. By increasing the price, it will discourage individuals, especially children and teenagers, from excessive consumption of these beverages. Revenues will be directed for health care initiatives.”

And here’s the American Beverage Association’s predictable response:  hurts the middle class, nobody wants it, no science or logic behind it.  The New York Times refers to what’s happening as a “spirited debate” (I am a participant).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  For example, the maker of a carbonated juice drink wrote me to complain that her product, which is 50% juice and taxable, contains under 70 calories per 8-ounces in comparison to non-taxed 100% fruit juice at 110 calories/8 ounces.  Obesity is about calories, no?  Or is it really about the kinds of products people habitually drink?

Dec 15 2008

Tax soft drinks in New York?

Governor Paterson says he can raise $404 million in state revenues with a 15% tax on soft drinks (but not diet sodas, juices, milk, or water).   I’m curious to know what you think of this idea.  Please weigh in.