The Frontal Cortex

The Soda Tax

Mark Bittman wonders if soda is the new tobacco, and explores the possibility of a tax on sugary, carbonated beverages:

A tax on soda was one option considered to help pay for health care reform (the Joint Committee on Taxation calculated that a 3-cent tax on each 12-ounce sugared soda would raise $51.6 billion over a decade), and President Obama told Men’s Health magazine last fall that such a tax is “an idea that we should be exploring. There’s no doubt that our kids drink way too much soda.”

But with all the junk food and U.F.O.’s (unidentifiable food-like objects) out there, why soda? Why a tax? And, most important, would it work?

To the beverage industry, the idea is not worth considering. Susan Neely, the president of the American Beverage Association, acknowledges that obesity is a problem but says: “If you’re trying to manage people being overweight you need a variety of behavior changes to achieve energy balance — it can’t be done by eliminating one food from the diet.”

I have a feeling that the beverage industry doesn’t want a soda tax because they know it would work. Just look at cigarettes. Nicotine, of course, is an intensely addictive substance and many smokers struggle for years to quit. Nevertheless, raising the price of cigarettes (via taxes) reliably and consistently reduces consumption. In fact, studies have found that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes causes a 4 percent reduction in demand. Teenagers are especially sensitive to these price changes: a 10 percent increase in price causes a 12 percent drop in teenage smoking. (The only bad news is that raising the price of cigarettes tends to increase the demand for marijuana. Apparently, the two products are in competition, at least among the young.)

Such studies raise all sorts of interesting questions, particularly when it comes to the rationality of addiction. But I think their relevance to soda is clear: if a surcharge can get us to give up nicotine – and tax increases seem far more effective than educational anti-smoking campaigns – then just imagine how much less soda we’d drink if the price went up. We assume our desires are inelastic, that we want Coke (or Pepsi) because it’s our favorite drink, regardless of the price. But human pleasure, it turns out, is deeply plastic. Behind every sip is an impressive amount of computation – the brain is adding up everything from price to expected pleasure – and it’s this neural calculation, expressed as a subtle emotion, that shapes our purchasing decisions.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex Besogonov
    February 15, 2010

    Once again, Futurama (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurama) meets the real world!

    All hail the Bureau of Soft Drinks, Tobacco, and Firearms!

  2. #2 CRM-114
    February 15, 2010

    It won’t do any good to get soda-drinkers to turn to fruit juices, since they’re both sugar-water, with or without fizz.

  3. #3 DR
    February 15, 2010

    Wow, that’s a lot of non-diet soda each and every day! We should retire the cliche “if we can put a man on the moon … ” in favor of “if we can drink 471 million cans of pop a day in this country, then surely we can … ” what? Find a cure for diabetes?

  4. #4 Colin
    February 15, 2010

    It is absolutely IDIOTIC to propose a tax on soft drinks when most (all?) public schools have vending machines.

    It is absolutely IDIOTIC to propose a tax on soft drinks when public schools serve chocolate milk.

    It is absolutely IDIOTIC to propose a tax on soft drinks when public school kitchens are being excessively pinched on budgets and have to resort to crap food like hamburgers, hot dogs, and french fries.

    There are many others, but these seem pertinent. If soft drinks are going to be chalked up to taxed vices then they need to be banned from every government institution. When was the last time you saw a cigarette machine in a government building? Or a slot machine? No? Hmmm.

  5. #5 Paul
    February 15, 2010

    Ok so we tax soda. Why stop there?

    If sugar is the reason and empty calories we need to tax energy drinks, iced teas like Lipton and Snapple, Ocean Spray Fruit Juices (they all add sugar to them), Gatorade (which is just sugar water with some salt added), and then lets look at all the processed foods we could tax as well that add sugar to products that normally have naturally occuring sugar.

    But because making food more salty, fatty, and sweeter keeps people coming back for more, manufacturers add fat, salt and sugar.

    Then do we tax all the fast sit down dining establishments for their atrocious menu items? I’m all for disclosure of nutrition information from chain sit down and fast food restaurants so I can avoid them like the plague.

    Why not tax Outback’s Rack of Ribs which carries a full day’s worth of calories, more than 3 days worth of saturated fat, and more sugar than several cans of Coke.

    Why not tax Panera’s Sierra Turkey Sandwich which carries close to 1000 calories, 54 grams of fat, and close to 2 grams of salt.

    I don’t know the answer to how we can stop being fat but taxing more things isn’t the only answer. Education works wonders but also having access to food that not only tastes good but is nutritionally valuable is also needed.

  6. #6 Hola
    February 15, 2010

    Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax.

    Is the human species completely out of ideas?

  7. #7 Colin
    February 15, 2010

    Paul, a problem is costs are externalized. Like a company dumping dimethyl mercury in a stream: someone else pays to clean it up.

    The cost externalization in the fattening of America is through insurance. If someone had to pay for their triple bypass out of their pocket then it becomes a pretty big carrot to get healthy. Worse yet: if they can’t pay then they die. So the decision would be “a pizza buffet and die”, or not. (The important argument I’m making in regard to insurance is the *choice* that led them to the illness.) Once you start accounting for every “choice” in life then insurance premiums become so stratified that the point of insurance is entirely lost.

    I do believe there are true metabolic disorders that cause obesity not related to diet (much like cachexia is not due to nutrition). They would have to be exempted.

    How about farming subsidies that make growing corn such a frenzy that makes HFCS cheaper than cane sugar (additionally because of sugar tariffs)? Thus causing excessive nitrates in drinking water because farmers have to douse the fields every year.

    Eating a Sierra Turkey sandwich is great if that consists of a huge part of your daily diet. If you follow it up with a Big Mac meal then that’s your fault; if you follow it up with a healthy salad (forgo the dressing, cheese, meat) then it seems fine.

    The biggest problem in America is not the sugar, fat, or salt levels: it’s moderation. There is some argument, though, to all foods having too much which makes it next to impossible to get away from, say, salt. Food is too cheap and hides externalized costs thus not figuring into the “neural calculation” Jonah was speaking of.

  8. #8 Daniel Guffey
    February 15, 2010

    Not worth considering, yet.

    First, get rid of the corn subsidies and allow the price of all corn based products to return to real market prices.

  9. #9 6EQUJ5
    February 15, 2010

    Uninsured poor who die young cost the insurance companies nothing. The more people who are killed by their food, and the faster they are killed, the more profitable the health insurance racket becomes.

  10. #10 Colin
    February 15, 2010

    6EQLJ5, that doesn’t make sense. Insurance companies are more profitable by collecting premiums and not paying claims. You have to both be alive and paying premiums for this to work. They already do a “good job” of pruning out claims and it would actually be in their interest to make the food healthier but it would be much more profitable to make obesity a “pre-existing condition” and just outright exclude those claims. Or charge more like many do for smoking.

  11. #11 lara
    February 15, 2010

    I agree with 7 & 8. Why are we talking about taxing soda when we already subsidize it? It’s cheap right now because our taxes pay for the high-fructose corn syrup that makes it so unhealthy in the first place. The tax is a red herring. We need to address the corn subsidies first.

  12. #12 Size
    February 15, 2010

    Hola #6 – No, but most of the other things that have been tried – nutritional information labels (and in the case of cigarettes, warning labels), public health information campaigns, and encouraging schools to offer healthy alternatives – simply have not proved to be as effective as creating a financial disincentive to consumption. Or hitting ‘em in the pocketbook, as it were.

    That said, it does seem counterproductive to collect taxes on soda and then use said tax money to subsidize production of HFCS. Why not simply eliminate the middle man? The price of natural sugar, or corn syrup or whatever should equalize at a higher price, no additional taxes needed.

  13. #13 Tim
    February 15, 2010

    Small quibble re #5 and others, but the salt problem is even worse than you might imagine from those labels. The sodium on the nutrition label is the mass of sodium ions, not of salt (sodium chloride). To get the amount of salt you must multiply by the ratio of the mass of NaCl to the mass of Na, a factor of about 2.5. That Panera sandwich actually has five grams of salt.

  14. #14 Colin
    February 16, 2010

    Tim, true but it doesn’t change the amount of sodium which is what the label is all about.

  15. #15 Milt
    February 16, 2010

    When the price of pot when up, I was forced to turn to heroin, then the price on smack when through the roof, so I had no choice but to do meth. But then the price for tweeking went crazy, so I turned to soda. What a rush – that sugar coursing through my veins, and my teeth are much better now.

  16. #16 deep6
    February 16, 2010

    I don’t have a link, but aren’t the biggest costs of insurance companies medical care for seniors? Where’s the I’m-an-old-sick-guy-who-wants-to-live-forever tax?

    Soda taxes are just health policy theater, because to do something more comprehensive and fair with that policy (applying taxes to *all* unhealthy foods) the gov’t would have to go up against the very industries it subsidizes, and no Democrat or Republican is going to anger midwestern farmers or big agro.

  17. #17 Jordan
    February 16, 2010

    I personally think this would be a worthwhile idea; of course, it looks great on paper, but then again, so did communism. Ideally, it should be tested out on a small control before being nationally enacted… While I personally wouldn’t want another tax to deal with (I love my soda!), I do feel it would be a fantastic psychologically justifiable move for the government to make. Educational videos, for those that already aren’t heeding their warnings, are a tremendous waste of resources. In fact, I know that in my high school, they’re mocked for their ‘naivety’…

    If we (‘we’ being the responsible smart people… Go us!) desire a change to be made, we can’t expect the common man to simply accept that ‘soda is bad for you’. It tastes great and makes you happy! Instead, we need their own brains to tell them that, ‘whoa, hey there… The amount of pleasure you are going to get from that fizzy thing is FAR inferior to the amount that it’s going to cost you.’ If that has to be done in a semimanipulative way, then so be it.

  18. #18 Donna B.
    February 16, 2010

    Two factors in the reduction of smoking are not mentioned here — the social scorn heaped on smokers and the laws prohibiting smoking most everywhere. I think the taxes had much less effect.

  19. #19 omar
    February 17, 2010

    #5: outback’s full rack of ribs has 24 grams of sugar, which is half of one can of soda. Just FYI.
    I think a soda tax is a good idea AFTER we eliminate the corn subsidy.
    The idea that people who are getting coronary bypasses “chose” that illness is not as clear cut as some of the commentators seem to think. There is a stronger correlation between diabetes and obesity, but even that is not perfect. The correlation between obesity and coronary heart disease is rather modest. And if you are going to be all “scientific” about it, then we will have to accept that MOST cases of obesity are genetic in origin because the propensity to eat more than you need is itself influenced by genetics. Most slim people are not slim because they will themselves to keep slim, its because they inherited a tendency to moderate weight gain. Even in an “obesogenic environment”, most people are not obese. Thats not due to superior diet education, its innate (genetic plus epigenetic).
    And of course, the tendency to submit to temptation is also mostly genetic…
    As a public health measure, the idea of letting everyone do what they want and pay for healthcare on their own sounds brilliant (and is emotionally satisfying to a lot of young people who are not sick and dont have kids) but its crappy social science. National health works best…and it costs LESS than the current crazy quilt health system.

  20. #20 Paul Kocak
    February 17, 2010

    Prohibition? It didn’t work. Same with this. What about swinging the other way? Incentives for virtually free fruits and vegetables?

  21. #21 catgirl
    February 18, 2010

    It won’t do any good to get soda-drinkers to turn to fruit juices, since they’re both sugar-water, with or without fizz.

    It is absolutely IDIOTIC to propose a tax on soft drinks when public schools serve chocolate milk.

    Wow, a lot of people make the mistake of using calories or sugar as the only factor in health. Juice and chocolate milk are much healthier than soda. Having sugar and calories absolutely does not negate the good things that are in those beverages. Vitamins, minerals, and protein are still good for you, even if they have some sugar with them.

  22. #22 catgirl
    February 18, 2010

    What about swinging the other way? Incentives for virtually free fruits and vegetables?

    I think this is a much better idea. I know that I would eat a lot more oranges and strawberries if they weren’t so expensive.

  23. #23 interestedobserver
    February 18, 2010

    ewwwww… the problem in all of this is the underlying assumption that there is good science against soda assuming all other factors are equal. There isn’t. The correlated omitted variables matter in this sequence big time. Most people that drink soda are making many other health decisions that are not good. However, there is no science that backs that it would be better for me to have milk or juice of the same number of calories of soda given everything else equal. I am a guy that stays at an appropriate level of weekly calories given my weight and the 1.5 hours per week of weight training I do. The fact that I use soda for some of those calories should not subject me to a higher tax. What we think we know that really isn’t so is a very poor reason to legislate.

  24. #24 Josh Martin
    February 25, 2010

    Some of the dogmatic anti tax comments can get ridiculous. Hopefully this can shed some light.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100224142046.htm

    “By contrast, subsidizing the prices of healthy food actually increased overall calories purchased without changing the nutritional value at all. It appears that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and vegetables and treated the family to less healthy alternatives, such as chips and soda pop. Taxes had basically the opposite effect, shifting spending from less healthy to healthier choices.”

  25. #25 Peter Wiley
    February 28, 2010

    “If you’re trying to manage people being overweight you need a variety of behavior changes to achieve energy balance — it can’t be done by eliminating one food from the diet.”

    Hmm. I stopped drinking soda and lost 35 pounds with very little change in my other activities. Eliminating one food worked very well for me.

  26. #26 Jerry M.
    February 28, 2010

    Hmmm,,, very complex problem indeed!!! But I think catgirl might be unto to right idea of making healthy food choices more accessable and or affordable. I love shopping at whole foods, but,,,, I don’t live near one, so traveling far wastes my time and money, and the few times I do get there, most of their prices are prohibitavely high. It’s ironic that in Pre industrial times , it was the poor who ate healthy, because the didn’t have access to highly processed but expensive foods. But now we’ve turned that model upside down!!! And more highly processed foods which are now cheaper because of storage and transportation costs have made them cheaper. We need to find ways of making healthy foods more accesable AND less expensive, and make THAT our main priority, rather than just narrowly focusing on just one unhealthy choice among the many countless thousands out there!!!

  27. #27 Jerry M.
    February 28, 2010

    Addendum to my post above. Maybe it’s time the governent needs to take a look at exactly why we’re subsidizing the large corporate food conglomerates that produce most of the mass produced highly processed unhealthy food, and why we allow them into brainwashing the unknowing masses into thinking that their food is actually good for us!!!

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