Erica C. Barnett (via Marion Nestle) points to a fascinating new study from the USDA on the effects of taxing sweetened beverages. The flagship chart sums things up nicely:
What’s more, the study finds that even the relatively modest reductions in calorie intake from sweetened beverages would put a noticeable dent in our waistlines:
- By assuming that 1 pound of body fat has about 3,500 calories, and assuming all else remains equal, the daily calorie reductions would translate into an average reduction of 3.8 pounds over a year for adults and 4.5 pounds over a year for children.
- The weight loss induced by the tax could reduce the overweight prevalence among adults from 66.9 to 62.4 percent and the prevalence of obesity from 33.4 to 30.4 percent. For children, the at-risk-of-overweight prevalence would decline from 32.2 to 27.0 percent and the overweight prevalence would decline from 16.6 to 13.7 percent.
While it’s not as if a 20 percent surcharge on soda would solve the nation’s obesity problem, neither is it the case that prices don’t make a real difference. So to the extent that weight gain is a serious problem for public health, it seems that prices may play an important role in solving it.
Personally, I’d love to see some revenue-neutral version of a steep Pigovian tax on sugary products. The revenue could be easily redirected toward uses that would boost equity, such as a tax rebate for low-income individuals, or a general sales tax reduction, or perhaps even funding for health programs. There’s no real public benefit to cheap empty calories, and an abundance of ways to lend a financial helping hand where it’s needed.
Image is from Economic Research Service report summary, “Taxing Caloric Sweetened Beverages,” July 2010, here.
This reflects a general shift towards an approach to food consumption that encourages healthier eating; make it more difficult and expensive to eat unhealthy food than healthy alternatives. When most overly-processed and sugary foods are the cheapest available, it means that many people have no choice but to buy and consume these products. When individual choice is no longer a part of the equation, top-down regulations such as this sugar tax might be able to have some positive benefit. We should also look into exposing the real costs of food. We need to get rid of subsidies that supplement the cost of growing corn and other industrialized crops, and realize that the cost of healthcare is indelibly tied to our diet. This may also affect the price of processed food, and may encourage healthier eating. Good find!
What about zero calorie diet sodas? They’re still taxed in WA (which makes sense to me), as is sugarless gum (that doesn’t).
Thanks for this info about tax shifting. Suppose we didn’t subsidize sugar and corn syrup in the first place? I am grateful to farmers, and have nothing against agricultural subsidies. Why not subsidize something positive? France subsidizes wine and cheese on small farms, rather than corn and sugar on huge farms. I dream of subsidies for organically grown vegetables, habitat restoration, and switchgrass fuel for obsolescent coal plants. In the meantime, a modest but healthy change would prop up Florida’s economy with a subsidy on organically grown oranges, rather than pesticide-grown sugar.