A rebuttal to the anti-soda-tax arguments

Soda Tax

Back in May I wrote about the push for a Soda Tax.  A few days ago, over at change.org’s Sustainable Food section, they wondered if a soda tax will really help curb obesity.

I keep seeing the same arguments against a soda tax again and again, so I’d like to offer my rebuttals.

“A soda tax won’t reduce consumption.”

Sure it will.  It may not be a deterrent for everyone, of course, but it will be for some (many?), and will therefore be a step in the right direction.

As reported by the Washington Post, a USDA study indicates that a “20 percent increase in the price of high-calorie, sweetened beverages, such as soda and sports drinks, could result in a decrease in the daily calorie intake of beverages by 37 calories for an average adult and 43 calories for children. That translates into an average reduction of 3.8 pounds over a year for an adult and 4.5 pounds for a child.”

In a recent real-world test, Harvard researchers raised the price of a 20-ounce bottle of full-calorie soda by 45 cents (a 35% price increase).  This caused sales to drop by 26 percent.

“It won’t solve the obesity problem in America.”

Of course it won’t solve the entire obesity epidemic; to think it would do so is just silly.

However, every little bit helps, and we need to attack this problem from multiple angles.  I also think that is an opportunity to have more than “a little bit” of positive impact.

Soda is a huge factor in our obesity problem, and therefore reducing high-calorie, sugary-beverages is one of the best places to start.

“A soda tax is an unfair burden on poor families.”

That’s faulty logic.  If you’re poor, you shouldn’t be spending your money on soda in the first place.  And if you’re truly destitute, you aren’t buying soda anyway. [Update: I probably could have used a better word than “shouldn’t” in the previous paragraph. See discussion in the comments section below.]

Soda delivers calories that are nutritionally devoid.  It’s simply not a healthy or cost-effective way to feed your family.

Soda is not nourishing food. It used to be considered a luxury item, enjoyed much less frequently and in smaller amounts, and it’s time we reverted back to that idea.
<h3″A reduction in soda intake will be offset by an increase in other junk foods.”

Liquid calories (like those in soda) are not registered by the body in the same way that solid calories are.   By drinking your calories, you end up consuming more calories overall.

Reducing soda consumption, therefore, would ultimately result in a net reduction on the average calorie intake of Americans.

“I don’t want the government telling me what I can and can’t eat!”

I don’t want the government controlling my diet, either — but that’s not at all what’s going on here. The proposals are not to ban soda, just to tax it.

Taxing is not “government control,” since it does not limit what you can and can’t do, buy, or eat.  (Your budget may limit that, and taxes have an effect on your budget, but it is not direct control of what you can and can’t do.)

But if you do want to stop any and all government control over food, then we also have to keep the government from subsidizing corn and giving tax breaks to the food industry.  And how about food safety legislation?  Don’t you want the government assuring that our food supply is safe?  So where do you draw the line?

Considering the overwhelming evidence that soda (a non-essential, luxury item) causes harm to individuals AND society, someone has to pay for that burden; it should be the people consuming the soda, not society as a whole.

(See also: Who decides what you can and can’t eat?)

“Taxing soda is a ‘slippery slope.'”

This, too, is a faulty argument.  It’s alarmist rhetoric that makes for good headlines.

Taxes on soda aren’t new – 33 states already charge sales tax on soft drinks (at an average rate of 5.2%).

We heavily tax cigarettes because we know they’re bad for us (and it is an effective deterrent — the CDC says a 10% increase in taxes results in a 4% decrease in smoking).

We already have different tax rates for foods and other items, and even different tax rates if food is “for here” or “to go.”

Although a soda tax might be one more bit of government intervention into the free markets, it would not have a snowball effect or push us down a “slippery slope.”

“Parents need to do their job and control/teach their children.”

I’d agree with that — there is certainly truth here.  However, it’s not a level playing field.  Kids are inundated with commercials and advertising, as well as many hours where they are not under their parents’ watchful eyes (school?  friends’ houses?) — and when soda is offered at school, there’s not much parents can do about it.

What kid isn’t going to want a soda with his lunch, when it’s readily available?  Sure, parental influence is a huge and important factor, but parents are no match for the food industry.

What other arguments against a soda tax have you heard?  Do you disagree with any of this?  Post in the comments below!

Further reading:  Check out this report from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity (PDF).

Photo by Targeteer2k.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

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July 14, 2010 6:22 pm

I will say that the only concern I have with the notion of a soda tax is the government subsidy on corn, which–as you noted–is the big reason why soda is so cheap, and thus why we end up drinking more of it than we should. The key thing there is “government subsidy”, which means from the government coffers, which means from taxes, which means from us, the taxpayers. Who are buying the soda. I just can’t bring myself on fundamental grounds to pay to make corn cheap, then pay again to make it not-cheap. It’s like paying a monthly fee to get cheaper movie tickets, then agreeing to raise the price on those tickets because they’re too cheap now. I know we have to find a practical solution, and fully repealing the subsidy isn’t an easy or quick (or even likely) thing to go after, but I’d also rather… Read more »

July 14, 2010 9:54 am

“If you’re poor, you shouldn’t be spending your money on soda in the first place.” Hi Andrew, I love your blog, but I find this statement to be a bit off-putting. Who are we (folks who are not poor by definition) to tell others what they “should” or “should not” be spending their money on? I agree that soda is extremely unhealthy. It’s not something I usually drink, but then again I drink a lot of coffee, which some doctors/nutrionists/etc. say is “bad” for me. Likewise, I agree that there are many poor people in this country who do not eat a healthy diet, which is due to both a lack of education, but also just a lack of funds and often limited food choices in their neighborhoods. I’d love to see organic farmers, organic food companies and supermarkets like Whole Foods discount their prices and/or do more for people… Read more »

July 14, 2010 4:33 am

if you replaced “soda” with “cigarette”, I’d feel like I was in a time warp.

Why is taxing soda an unfair burden on poor families? if poor families in this country don’t have access to clean tap water for free, then that’s a root cause that needs to be addressed.

But it is a slippery slope. Define “soda.” The beverage market is huge. I consider Sunny D to be on the same page as coke, but they’d attempt to posit themselves alongside Orange Juice. What about Kool Aid, or Crystal Light? Or Lipton’s “Green Teas,” so packed with sugar it curls the teeth. Take a look in the 7/11 cooler and see what exactly we could tax.

July 13, 2010 4:54 pm

BTW – the blog is awesome!

July 13, 2010 4:53 pm

OK, AW, I’ll play. I’m going to rejoin “I don’t want the government telling me what to eat” Andrew said, “Taxing isn’t ‘government control’, since it doesn’t control what you can and can’t do…”. But, you argued above that it will decrease consumption. While it’s true that tax something is not the same as outlawing something, it is (by your own admission) an attempt to socially engineer our behavior. So you can’t have it both ways, either the tax is trying to get us to engage in (or refrain from) certain behaviours or it isn’t. I say it is, and I say that’s inappropriate for tax policy. Andrew said, “we also have to keep the government from subsidizing corn and giving tax breaks to the food industry” Ok, sounds good to me. I agree. Andrew said, “And how about food safety legislation? Don’t you want the government assuring that our… Read more »

July 13, 2010 4:27 pm

Let me get this straight a tax on soda is an unreasonable burden on the poor.
But, extending unemployment benefits is helping people to not become too dependent on unhealthy addictions (in this case, dependence on “government handouts”).
And a public health care plan (as one option among private plans) is dangerous.
What a looking-glass!
BTW, where I live, a 20-oz bottle of soda costs $1.69 at most KwikE Mart-type places (plus a bottle deposit, plus sales tax – because soda is not a food, but a good). A half-gallon of milk (32 oz) in the same marts costs $1.99 (no bottle deposit or tax). It seems that “the poor” are already being burdened, just by what the market will bear.
I crave diet soda. I welcome a tax that makes it more burdensome for me to buy it.

July 13, 2010 12:12 pm

Couple points: A soda tax IS an unfair burden on poor families. All point-of-sale taxes are. But let them eat cake.

I doubt 20% is high enough. It took 200-500% increases in taxes to have any impact on cigarette sales. Carbonated sugar water is pretty addictive too. CSW is still cheaper than non-CSW like Gatorade and fruit juice and are those any better?