A friend of mine, deeply committed to maintaining a a healthy lifestyle, but somewhat more politically conservative than I, heard about the infamous soft drink tax and scoffed, “The government has no business legislating morality.”
This raised my hackles, given my background in philosophy, as I saw no relationship between morality and people’s desire to consume sugar-sweetened beverages.
“The government,” my friend continued, “Is villainizing soda now the way it villainized tobacco in the 70′s. The tax discriminates against people for their personal preferences.”
I listened patiently, annoyed of course, but respectful. Generally speaking, my friend has strong opinions and supports them well–but in this case, I did not believe she was looking at the whole picture.
The following is my summary of a Health Policy Report from The New England Journal of Medicine, “The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages,” (September 16, 2009) written by Kelly D. Brownell and six prominent health and economics experts. This summary should arm you with information regarding the soft drink tax and help you understand why it is gaining so much favor.
The prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is linked to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (beverages sweetened with added white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or fruit juice concentrates). A tax has been proposed in order to reduce/deter consumption of such beverages.
In a short span of time, the popularity of sugar-sweetened beverages has increased tremendously. Data from 2005-2006 shows that the average American drinks about 175 calories worth of sugar-sweetened beverages per day (that’s about 8% of total caloric intake, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. In other words, one in every twelve bites–or swallows–taken is laden with sugar). A child’s risk of obesity rises 60% for each additional daily serving of a sugary beverage. One study shows that women who consume sugary beverages daily are at double the risk for diabetes compared to women who consume sugary beverages on a monthly basis.
Due to the high glycemic load of sugary beverages, it is not surprising that consumption of these drinks increases the risk for diabetes and insulin resistance. Weight gain associated with consumption of sugary beverages is also not surprising, as these beverages have a relatively poor satiating property when compared to solid food. Individuals tend not to compensate (by eating less later in the day) for the calories derived from their sweetened drinks as well as individuals who derived calories from solid food. Weight gain can also be attributed to the fact that unlike people who eat when they are hungry, individuals who choose to drink a sugary beverage frequently do so in the absence of hunger; a soft drink might be consumed to satisfy thirst, when water would have sufficed, or when a social situation encourages them to do so. Opinions from health experts suggest that these drinks may also adversely affect taste preferences, leading people to avoid vegetables, legumes, and fruits.
When a “market failure” produces less-than-optimal production and consumption, economists agree that government intervention is permissible. An externality, in layman’s terms, is a generally unintended economic consequence of another economic sector. Externalities can be both positive and negative. Soft drink consumption, a strong predictor of obesity, is associated with numerous costly, negative externalities. It is estimated that $147 billion dollars–roughly 9% of health care costs–are associated with obesity and its related illnesses, with over half of this amount coming from publicly funded Medicare and Medicaid.
A penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks has been proposed (along with other provisions, so that the tax would remain effective over time). For example, a 20oz soda would cost 15-20% more. The tax will more heavily affect individuals who consume more soft drinks, and who are at even greater risk for obesity than moderate consumers. Beverages sweetened artificially are exempt from this tax, as research has not yet demonstrated associations between such drinks and obesity.
Soft drink consumption tends to become a habit in teenage years (and even in pre-pubescent years). It is agreed that young people are more sensitive to the effects of marketing, lack the more sophisticated long-term decision-making skills of adults, and will have greater difficulty later in reversing adverse health trends fostered in their youth. The poor are also at a higher risk for the adverse health consequences of long-term soft drink consumption, due to the current affordability of each calorie derived from such beverages.
Revenues generated from the soft drink tax are intended to fund health and obesity prevention programs. As a tax on tobacco helps generate revenue and curb health-related consequences, a soft drink tax is hoped to generate revenue and curb the prevalence of obesity and its related illnesses.