When soft drinks were invented in the late 18th century, they were sold mainly in pharmacies and used for their “medicinal qualities,” which were thought to treat everything from stomach ailments to headaches and even impotence. How times have changed.
These days, soft drinks are in the cross hairs of the food nannies, and are blamed for a variety of conditions and social ills – from obesity to violence in children. One researcher even recently called the sugar in soda “a toxic substance.”
Such hyperbole helps snag headlines, but such rhetoric has little to do with actual research on the health impact of soda consumption. The far less dramatic truth is that while obesity rates have climbed in this country, soda consumption is at an all-time low. In fact, soft drink sales have been declining for a full seven years.
Food nannies determined to tax sodas or ban them all together in the name of reducing obesity need to explain how we can blame Americans’ weight problems on soft drinks when there has been a precipitous drop in soda sales over the past decade. In fact, government officials at all levels need to justify why they waste taxpayer dollars on anti-soda campaigns.
Consider just a sample of the regulatory and tax efforts on the horizon: Washington State, Oregon, California, Rhode Island, and Illinois all are considering placing soda taxes on the ballot in November. According to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, twenty-two states already tax soft drinks through regular sales taxes (food and beverages, including sodas, are typically exempted from sales tax). Four states—Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia–have for years placed excise taxes on sodas. Those excise taxes are placed on soft drinks ostensibly to reduce the obesity rates in these states; yet, those states continue to top the list of states with the highest percentage of obese citizens.
Although Americans may understand the impulse to want to encourage healthy eating, they are inherently skeptical of sin taxes and government attempts to coerce citizens into eating what the government decides is “right.” According to a poll released this month, a full 62 percent of Americans oppose soda taxes and a whopping 81 percent agree that individuals should take responsibility for their own actions.
This new research echoes earlier research. A June 2012 Adweek/Harris poll showed 56 percent of Americans oppose soda taxes. That same year, a poll of New Yorkers showed that 63 percent opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s war on soft drinks. And an even more revealing poll by Rasmussen in 2010 found that 86 percent of Americans opposed the government telling them how they should eat or drink and a majority were against sin taxes on snack foods and sodas.
Americans may intuitively recognize that not only are these government efforts an inappropriate intrusion into private life, they are also unlikely to work.
In a 2011 Northwestern University study, for example, researchers examining the efficacy of soda taxes as an anti-obesity strategy were surprised to discover that soda taxes don’t target the intended demographic—the obese. Why? Obese individuals typically buy diet soda.
Similarly, a team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University had assumed such taxes would reduce obesity among adolescents. They used weight data from 20,000 children (the majority of which attended schools that sold snack foods and soft drinks in the cafeteria, in vending machines, and in school stores) and found the percentage of students who were overweight or obese did not increase from fifth to eighth grade. In fact, despite the increased availability of soda and snack foods, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese actually decreased during these years, from 39.1 percent to 35.4 percent.
Similarly, a University of Chicago study published last year showed the removal of soda machines from schools did nothing to reduce the childhood obesity rate among participating school populations.
As Americans consider a variety of important issues this November, they should also focus on this question: What is the appropriate role of government when it comes to our personal food decisions? While efforts to tax and regulate the food and beverage industry are promoted as a means to help Americans stay healthy, the result won’t be thinner kids or healthier adults. The result will simply be more bloated government, higher food costs and less choice for consumers who just want a cool soft drink on a hot summer day.