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.