Will Banning or Taxing Soda Really Make Us Healthier?

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

A shopper walks by the sodas aisle at a grocery store in Los Angeles

The taste of soda may be sweet, but the potential consequences of those empty calories — obesity, diabetes, higher mortality, and skyrocketing health care costs — are not. In response, many states and cities in recent years have proposed taxes or other measures intended to reduce consumption of sodas and other sweetened drinks.

One initiative commanding a lot of attention is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent soda ban, which prohibits the sale of sweetened beverages greater than 16 ounces in restaurants, food carts, delis, and concession stands at movie theaters, stadiums and arenas.

“There is a huge likelihood that the ‘soda ban’ will be the next McLean” — a healthier burger option added to the McDonald’s menu in 1991 that failed to catch on with customers, says Brian Wansink, a Cornell marketing professor and director of the school’s Food and Brand Lab. “For 10 years after [that product was introduced], fast food companies were hesitant to come out with new [health-conscious] products because they didn’t want to be the next McLean.”

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The soda ban is a similar gamble, he notes, because “it’s visible, it’s controversial and if it doesn’t overwhelmingly succeed, people will look at all subsequent public health efforts with tremendous disdain and distrust.” And the odds are not stacked in favor of the ban, or a growing number of efforts in other cities to tax sugary beverages, Wansink adds. As evidence, he cites 150 years of economic research that shows “if people really want something, they are going to find a way to buy what they want.”

Some experts argue that bans or taxes could give consumers pause — either due to a raised consciousness about the health risks associated with too much soda, or, in the case of a tax, because the drinks will become more expensive. But others worry that such methods of curbing obesity will have a number of unintended consequences — even hurting low-income Americans, many of whom already suffer from a lack of affordable food options.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says University of Pennsylvania nursing and epidemiology professor Karen Glanz. “The [food] industry, in this case, is selling legal products that we can’t say are ‘all bad,’ as we could say about tobacco…. If [health advocates] don’t team up with the food industry,” and instead continue to just push back at it, “[the industry] will become more committed to undermining health initiatives.”

Unlike the soda ban, levying taxes on sugary drinks serves a second purpose — combating many cities’ budgetary woes. “The good news is that in some ways, sweetened-beverage taxes can help” to mitigate health and budget problems, notes Wharton health care management professor Mark Pauly. But the effect will be limited. The taxes “won’t raise all the money that cities need nor make a major dent in the obesity problem.”

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Sharing the Pain

Currently, 30 states levy a sales tax, averaging about 5%, on soda purchases. In Richmond, Calif., city officials are taking a different approach: Included on the ballot in November will be a proposed penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened drinks sold, served or otherwise provided by stores, restaurants and other businesses. The proposal is structured as a business license fee, meaning it would be up to merchants to decide how, or if, they would pass the tax on to consumers. If voters approve it, the initiative would be the first of its kind in the U.S., according to The Wall Street Journal. Other cities may follow Richmond’s lead: Most recently, the city of El Monte, Calif., has also placed a soda tax measure on its November ballot.

Opponents of the bills in Richmond and El Monte, led by the American Beverage Association (ABA), have argued that the legislation would hurt low-income residents and local businesses, while unfairly targeting only one in a sea of unhealthy products that are for sale on the nation’s grocery and convenience store shelves. According to Reuters, critics have also noted that while obesity rates in the U.S. are going up, overall consumption of full-calorie soda has declined.

According to Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, an excise tax would conceivably affect the sticker price of sugary beverages, which could make it more effective than a sales tax at reducing consumption. “With a sales tax, you don’t get to see the added cost until you get to the cash register,” says Brownell, who, in a 1994 op-ed in the New York Times, was one of the first to bring the idea of a tax on unhealthy foods into a public forum. However, Glanz notes that “whether the tax actually achieves a reduction in sugary soda purchases may depend on how it is implemented.” Facing pressure from the beverage industry, retailers may purposely undermine the taxes — for example, by passing them on through increased prices for vegetables or other staples while keeping the price of sugary drinks low. “I don’t think the laws would [include] any accountability to the public or government as to how they recover the ‘back-end tax,'” she says.

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 Look at the connection between obesity and diabetes in http://www.diabetes-diabetics-.... Soda and the sugar in it. It's  tempting to resist for kids. Only time will tell. How would one measure the correlation between banning oversized sugary drinks and rates of obesity? There are other variables entering the picture like other sugary foods lining up food shelves. 

Meimi Nezu
Meimi Nezu

Regarding people having different opinions about tobacco vs food because we need food, that doesn't apply to me or most people I know. The difference between tobacco and soda is second-hand smoke. Cigarettes endanger the health of people beyond just the smokers themselves, and that's why society needs to regulate it. If too many people smoke, then the choice to not smoke is realistically removed because the toxins stay in the air. I would support people's choice to smoke if they can do it in such a way that it doesn't hurt everybody else in their vicinity by making them breathe the toxins from smoking as well. If there were a device (like an air bubble) that allowed smokers to smoke without having smoke get into everybody else's lungs, I'd be all for letting people choose for themselves whether they want to smoke or not. As long as people can do it in a way that prevents the smoke from affecting the people around them, it's not the government's problem. It's an unfortunate blow to freedom that such a device doesn't exist, and that's why government has to ban smoking in certain circumstances.

In contrast, drinking soda doesn't physically hurt anybody else. Someone can drown themselves in soda, and everybody else will be just as healthy as they were before. Trying to regulate soda isn't at all preventing one person's choice from hurting the people around them (which I consider to be the role of government). Trying to control how much soda an individual chooses to drink is simply an invasion of personal choice. This is society turning into intrusive big brothers and nannies. This is people using laws to try to control the behavior of others. This is nothing like regulating food safety. Problems in the safety of food physically harms people without them knowing and being able to choose to avoid such harm. It's not like people are choosing to drink soda under the mistaken impression that it's good for them. If we really believe that people don't realize that soda is bad for them, then the legislation should involve educating the consumer rather than limiting personal choices.

So, no. The difference between tobacco and food is far more than us needing food and not needing tobacco. The difference goes down to fundamentally what the function of governments should include and what lines they shouldn't cross.


I don't think that it is right to put taxes on soda. This 5% paying more will not prevent people from buying it! And if they take taxes they should invest it in a health campaign against sweet soda and for more healthier beverages.  What I really miss are alternatives in restaurants and bars. They rarely sell juice or bottled water. If you don't want people drinking unhealthy drinks give them interesting healthy alternatives.