Soft Drinks, Death, and Taxes
New York’s governor, David Patterson, favors a tax on sugared beverages such as popular soft drinks, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Pepsi and others. His argument is that weight gain and obesity cost the public tremendous amounts of money and healthcare dollars and they take an enormous toll on the health and well-being of all citizens. The governor further notes that heavy taxes on cigarettes have helped reduce the consumption of these tobacco products which also contribute greatly to disease and burdens on the healthcare system.
Opponents of such attacks say that taxing sugared beverages is just a cynical means of raising money for cash-strapped governments, and they doubt whether raising the price of Coca-Cola will have any impact at all on the obesity epidemic.
What do you think?
When I studied public health at the University of California Berkeley, I learned that government can influence personal behaviors through public policy changes including taxes. I was also taught to look “upstream” at the root causes of major health problems and try to come up with ways that public policy could impact those root causes.
But it is hard to know whether a tax on sugared beverages would discourage people from drinking them. Judging from the tobacco taxes, it has taken very high taxes to impact a person’s behavior significantly. Are societies prepared to levy taxes on soft drinks of 50% or 100% or 200%?
And then the problem of obesity becomes even more muddled. How much of it really stems from sugared beverages? And if sugared beverages become prohibitively expensive, will people just get there “sugar fix” by turning to other less expensive treats? Perhaps public policy should take into account that the consumption of calories in general and high carbohydrate foods in particular, contribute to the obesity epidemic. It is true that this places a great burden on the tax payers. But how to construct a fair and equitable tax to address these questions? For example, should we tax only foods that are high in calories and high in carbohydrates? And would we apply those taxes across the board or only to certain subgroups? For example, should we just tax sugared beverages but not sugared ice creams and cakes?
No matter what the ultimate answers to these questions, the sobering truth is that the consumption of more high carbohydrate foods and beverages is contributing to an alarming and devastating rise in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. With nearly a third of our nation’s children overweight or obese, an alarming increase in the number of pre-diabetic kids and adults, creative public policy solutions need to be found. But is this the right one? Tell us your thoughts.