On the heels of Philadelphia’s misguided soda tax, former New York Mayor (and well known soda scold) Michael Bloomberg (who financed the pro-soda tax campaign in Philadelphia) announced he will fund new soda tax measures in San Francisco and Oakland, California. And now, just in time for those hot summer months, a prominent New England Congresswoman is renewing calls for a national tax on sweetened beverages.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) first introduced her SWEET Act (cute!) in 2014, which would create a national sugar-sweetened beverage tax. Happily, for grown adults who enjoy the freedom to choose what to drink, the bill stalled in Congress. Yet, now, many believe there’s momentum for this type of nanny state legislation.
Consumers should consider a few facts before they drink the Kool-aid offered by the tax’s advocates. First, these sorts of “sin taxes” do precisely nothing to reduce obesity or sway people to make better consumption decisions. Secondly, they raise prices on the poorest individuals the most. Sadly, these are the very people who are less able to avoid taxes (such as by leaving city limits to buy in areas that don’t levy a tax).
There’s a vast amount of evidence showing that these taxes don’t work. Consider this study from researchers at Cornell University who found that when soda taxes are imposed, soda sales decline. Hooray, right? Not quite. Take a guess at what beverage sales went up? Give up? Beer! That’s right. While the tax may have reduced soda sales, they drove up the sales of a beverage that not only has roughly the same number of calories but also comes with the added benefit of making people unable to drive after consuming it. How is that improving things?
Americans might also look south to Mexico for that country’s failed efforts to reduce sugar consumption. In 2014, the Mexican government levied a nationwide one-peso-per-liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (beverages that are intensely popular in Mexico and for some regions, important, as clean water isn’t always available). The tax resulted in a 10 percent price increase in the price of sugary beverages — not insignificant for a country with a per-capita income of around $10,000 American dollars. And while the tax did, in fact, result in a slight decline in soda sales, those declines only lasted a year. In addition, the declines seen in that first year translated into only a 16 calories loss. As one economist noted, that’s “a drop in the caloric ocean.”
Compassionate citizens should also be aware that these taxes impact those who live at and under the poverty line the most because a larger percentage of their income goes to food and beverage purchases, which may include sugar-sweetened drinks. Paying these taxes then leave these people unable to afford other items — like diapers and personal care products. But don’t worry; Rep. DeLauro has a government program for that. Last year, she introduced The Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act, which would allow states to create pilot programs providing diapers and other items to low-income families. Perhaps these families would have more money to spend on diapers if they weren’t paying DeLauro’s sin taxes.
There’s a vast amount of evidence (and a tip to her staff, it’s easily Googled) that shows beverage taxes do nothing to improve the health of Americans. Demonizing single ingredients — in this case the sugar in sodas — ignores the complexity of obesity and it’s many causes (such as lack of exercise or the fact that you might be eating a large pizza or a plate of fried clams and fries along with your 150-calorie glass of Coke Classic).
Politicians are free to build awareness and offer opinions of what constitutes a healthy diet. Anything more constitutes an indefensible violation of people’s freedoms.