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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