Up to now, I’ve tried to avoid “food politics” pieces on the site because I tend to think those debates get very overheated quickly, and I really try and avoid the comments on this site to become the kind of cesspool of invective and not very clever insults that my soccer blog often had.
But Mark Bittman’s piece this weekend on taxing soda makes a lot of sense to me.
The average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks annually. (Although that includes diet sodas, it does not include noncarbonated sweetened beverages, which add up to at least 17 gallons a person per year.) Sweetened drinks could be taxed at 2 cents per ounce, so a six-pack of Pepsi would cost $1.44 more than it does now. An equivalent tax on fries might be 50 cents per serving; a quarter extra for a doughnut. (We have experts who can figure out how “bad” a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be; right now they’re busy calculating ethanol subsidies. Diet sodas would not be taxed.)
I should add here that I completely disagree with not taxing diet sodas. Research increasingly shows that drinking diet sodas “is associated with increased waist circumference in humans, and a second study that found aspartame raised fasting glucose (blood sugar) in diabetes-prone mice.” Personally, as part of my recent weight loss, I reduced my soda intake from 1-2 Diet Cokes per day down to 1-2 Diet Cokes per week. I feel far better and my energy level has become a lot less dependent on the twice-a-day caffeine spike that I used to get from the soda.
Putting that quibble aside, I think Bittman is right about the outcomes.
Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.
When you project the benefits in a more statistical manner, the benefits appear even more dramatic, though not a panacea by any means.
A study by Y. Claire Wang, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, predicted that a penny tax per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York State would save $3 billion in health care costs over the course of a decade, prevent something like 37,000 cases of diabetes and bring in $1 billion annually. Another study shows that a two-cent tax per ounce in Illinois would reduce obesity in youth by 18 percent, save nearly $350 million and bring in over $800 million taxes annually.
Scaled nationally, as it should be, the projected benefits are even more impressive; one study suggests that a national penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would generate at least $13 billion a year in income while cutting consumption by 24 percent. And those numbers would swell dramatically if the tax were extended to more kinds of junk or doubled to two cents an ounce. (The Rudd Center has a nifty revenue calculator online that lets you play with the numbers yourself.)
A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion.
Bittman is thinking big in his piece, in a way that’s easily tarred as “big government excessively interfering in people’s lives.” But to me, public health matters on the scale of the millions of unhealthy people and subsequent billions of dollars in associated health costs are precisely the kind of situations that require government intervention.
This is the kind of thing that will probably have to start on the state and local level. There is no doubt in my mind that I’d happily vote yes for a tax in my area. It seems absolutely worth it.
Photo used via a Creative Commons License from Flickr user fimoculous.