Soda taxes fall flat: Our view
Better-informed consumers, not surcharges, can help prevent obesity.
The latest attack on America’s expanding waistlines is aimed at your wallet, as health advocates and lawmakers hope to tax consumers out of drinking so many sugary drinks.
In Philadelphia, which hosted last week's Democratic convention, a tax of 1.5 cents per ounce on sugary drinks, and even on artificially sweetened diet drinks, will go into effect in January — making it the first major city with a soda tax. Voter initiatives for similar taxes will be on the November ballot in Oakland, San Francisco and Albany, Calif., and likely in Boulder, Colo. A similar measure passed in Berkeley, Calif., in 2014.
Americans, more than one-third of whom are obese, would be better off if they did cut back on sugary drinks. But efforts to tax people out of the habit are likely to fall flatter than day-old cola.
People are quick to see through ideas described as good for them but which make little sense. Why slap a surtax on sodas but not on Twinkies (135 calories per cake) or McDonalds' Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (780)?
And why tax diet sodas, as Philadelphia does, if the target is sugar? Maybe because the tax is a money grab disguised as a public health initiative.
Soda taxes are heavy on intrusion and light on impact. There are better ways to encourage people to eat and drink less. And while advocates like to draw an analogy between taxing soda and taxing cigarettes, the two products are vastly different.
Cigarettes are highly addictive. If used as intended, they can kill you. Smoking is responsible for about 480,000 deaths a year. High taxes — $4.35 per pack in New York state — are aimed at preventing price-sensitive teens from getting addicted. And over the years, they've proven their worth.
While some people certainly crave sugary sodas and other good-tasting but bad-for-you foods, people can and do choose to use them in moderation or to stop drinking them entirely.
Most important, soda taxes haven’t been shown to work. Take Mexico, where the obesity problem rivals that of the United States and where per capita soda consumption is the highest in the world. In 2014, Mexico added a tax of about 10% to sugary drinks. Initially, soda consumption dropped by nearly 2%, but in 2015 it came roaring back, rising about 2.7% and hitting a new peak, according to Canadean, a research and consumer insight firm.
More effective ways already are being used to change people’s diets. The best use of government authority is to empower people with the information they need to make healthier choices.
New York City — later joined by Seattle, about 20 other jurisdictions and the state of California — was the first to require calorie counts on restaurant menus. And starting next May, under a federal law, chain restaurants across the country will have to come clean on the calories in their offerings. Sure, consumers know that sodas are high in calories, but perhaps not how high. When they realize that a 20-ounce Coke has 240 calories, they might re-think that drink.
Already, per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks has been dropping, in 2015 to its lowest level since 1985, while sales of bottled water are on the rise.
As with smoking, obesity will decrease when overeating, sugary products and super-sizes become less culturally acceptable. The government's goal ought to be smarter consumers, not higher taxes.