Over the last several years, there have been over 30 proposed taxes on sugary beverages. Sugary drinks (such as soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks) are the single biggest source of added sugar in our diet today, and these drinks have very little, if any, healthy ingredients in them. Now, there is strong scientific evidence that they are also linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Drinking sugary beverages does not make you feel full, which means that drinking 240 calories in a 20-ounce soda will not keep you from eating 240 fewer calories later. All those extra calories, day-after-day, begin to add up and turn into weight gain.
With all of that in mind, motives for this type of legislation are not surprising. Hoping to match the effectiveness of taxes on tobacco, supporters believe a soda tax will discourage consumption of unhealthy drinks, offset the cost of obesity, and raise revenue for health and wellness initiatives. Economists have determined that if the price of sugary drinks goes up 10 percent, consumption will go down by about 10-12 percent. A tax of only a penny-per-ounce, would raise the cost of the average sugary drink by about 15-20 percent. This would be more than enough to reduce the amount that people buy, and the funds could be used on obesity prevention and health promotion programs.
Not surprisingly, the beverage industry has used their lobbying dollars to stymie these efforts, with great success. But that hasn’t stopped legislators from continuing to make proposals. Berkeley and San Francisco are the latest examples – both with soda taxes on the ballot for the upcoming November 4th election. Whether you live in one of these municipalities or not, there are several reasons why you should care about the outcome of these initiatives.
1. A soda tax will work. Last year, Mexico passed a penny per ounce tax on soda and junk food, despite the large amounts of money beverage companies spent to prevent it. Just as the companies feared, soda consumption dropped almost immediately in Mexico by several percentage points. And as advocate, Patrick Mustain, points out:
The amount of energy being poured into fighting these taxes is a pretty good indication that the industry, with all its well-funded market and consumer research, knows that if sugary drinks begin to be taxed, then consumption of these products will indeed begin to drop.
2. It will change norms. While beverage companies may try to convince you otherwise, a soda tax will not raise the price of all groceries. It will raise the price of sugary drinks, which are not a grocery staple. They are an indulgence. Or, at least they should be. Beverage companies have become quite good at getting people to consumer more sugary drinks (and in larger quantities) than they probably would naturally. Sugary drinks are the default beverage accompanying fast food meals, can be found in coolers in nearly every store checkout lane, are marketed as a size “small” even when the portion is 3-4 times the recommended serving size, and are almost always available with “free refills” at restaurants. A tax on these beverages reinforces the notion that these sugary drinks are a treat, and should be treated as such.
3. It will set a precedent. A soda tax passing anywhere in the United States, even in a more progressive area like Berkeley or San Francisco, is likely to ignite similar measures throughout the country. Especially once data can be accumulated to prove it’s effectiveness. California was the first state to ban smoking in restaurants and bars all the way back in 1998. Now, it’s become so commonplace across the US, that entering an establishment that allows smoking seems uncomfortable.
4. It paves the way for other public health initiatives. Once health advocates realized that education wasn’t enough to reduce tobacco use, a multitude of polices were proposed to tackle the problem – which as we know, is what really caused smoking rates to finally drop. Soda taxes are likely only the first of many policy initiatives that will be used to decrease consumption of sugary drinks. Policy makers and health advocates haven’t given up on methods such as warning labels on packaging and serving size restrictions. By following tobacco’s example, maybe an effective tax could even lead to restrictions on the marketing of sugary drinks to children, or the removal of soda vending machines. It may seem far-fetched, but I’m sure the same was thought of the restrictions put on cigarettes when they were first proposed.
Currently, rates of obesity and overweight show no signs of dropping, and more and more healthcare dollars are being used to treat diet related disease. We know that sugary drinks are part of the problem. Reducing consumption makes good economic and public health sense. A tax on sugary drinks can help make it possible.