Sodas a Tempting Tax Target

The possibility of a tax on sugary beverages is more plausible, now that an avid proponent has been appointed to a top public health position.

Comments: 43

  1. No it is not. It is a rather devious confusion of issues with the sole objective of raising taxes. It targets an exclusive group in the population under the guise of health promotion, which guise somehow makes it ethically acceptable or politically justifiable.

    Presumably it will hit families and teenagers more since one assumes that most soda is consumed in those groups. So in that sense it is another of those regressive taxes, with the income ostensibly to be used to benefit the broad population. Inherently not fair then.

    Other issues. If soda, then why not juice drinks - read the label. What about ice cream, cookies, potato chips etc and etc? If its OK to tax health harmers, then why not tax the companies that dump toxic emissions into the air and water and soil? Why not those which make motorcycles and cars that go far over the speed limits at the mere touch of a pedal? Why not those who maintain unsafe working environments? The list could go on.

    The desirable goal in my opinion would be to spread the cost over the group that will benefit. In the case of health care reform, that could be pretty much the entire population PLUS the corporations large and small, that may be relieved of the burden of paying for health insurance for their employees - which relief they have been calling for, pretty vociferously for many years now. They will have the most immediate, substantive benefit.

    The practice of vilifying for purposes of taxation, certain population subgroups because of their consumption habits, lifestyle or even their health status or disability is more than unfair, it is mean-spirited and often hypocritical.

  2. I agree that taxing sugared beverages is intrusive and not helpful to consumers who are paying a lot for their products. The secondary part of this is that if sugared beverages are taxed, then snack food items will as well. The question arises: Do taxes on harmful products such as cigarettes reduce consumption? Most likely not. The reality is that taxing the consumption of harmful products will generate revenues for the government; but do we want government taxing our choices. My prediction: Coca-Cola, Hershey, and even snack food producers will lobby to kill this proposal.

  3. Look, if the government doesn't get involved in a state-run healthcare program (which Canada has done, instead of having a military) then they wouldn't need to care about all of these unhealthy choices! I am 20, run 6 miles every day and am in better physical shape than most soldiers. If the government was going to tax me extra for some chips, I would expect to have tax receipts for exercising. That's ridiculous.

    The wages of being unhealthy is dying early. It sounds like incentive enough. Let the government stay out of this and just try to balance the budgets they have.

  4. YES YES YES. Please get rid of junk food from our society. It's destroying America. We have become a nation of addicts addicted to cheap junk food. EAT EAT EAT is all we do now.

  5. It has been clearly demonsrtrated over and over that excess caloric intake is the primary cause of obesity. Obesity represents a huge economic burden to our society. It makes perfect societal sense to tax items that reflect high caloric density like soft drinks. Reducing consumtion of high caloric foods and subequently obesity will reduce the cost to society and can have a positive impact on the overall quality of life of all.

  6. "Someone who dies at age 60 from a heart attack or emphysema costs "the system" a whole lot less than someone who lives to 85 in reasonably good health."

    Med Student, Ann Arbor

    Really? I suppose if there wasn't all of the life extending treatments and technology to treat chronic conditions (i.e. type II diabetis, heart disease, etc.) that would be the case, but I wonder what the emperical data actually says.

    It seems to me that providing a financial incentive to live a healthier life, and using the proceeds to provide better preventive care is a lot more eithical than allowing the status quo to reign. It seems better than letting the country spiral further into obesity and letting other's pay the tab for the medical treatment or worse - have a syetem that turns its back on people when they get sick, of families go bankrupt due to the cost of medical care.

    Freedom of choice? The argument rings a bit hollow unless you are willing to bear the full cost of the consequences, such as the cost of medical treatment for the resulting disease, and not shift those costs to society as a whole.

    It does impact others, look at the cost of health insurance. Look at access to health care among those who don't have insurance.

    Freedom comes with responsibility.

  7. if they're contributing to the problem, then yes. but all and any proceeds should go toward related health programs and noting else.

  8. I agree with comment #5: chop the agribusiness subsidies, and put that dough into healthcare.

    On the other hand, I see no moral problem with taxing candy and soda. As a consumer of alcohol and tobacco products, my unhealthy items are already taxed and nobody advocates for repealing those taxes as unfair, so why should I (a healthy, athletic person despite my vices) care for the problems of the soda-gulping obese folks who would be harmed by this proposal?

  9. Choices have consequences (and to not choose is to choose). Childhood is not too soon to learn that lesson. If it had been learned then by most of us, there would be little point to the discussion of how to raise revenue to pay for the costs of health care arising from injudiciouis food consumption.

  10. Mmm... tax them now, or me when the cost gets paid for this sort of stuff? Mmm... Decisions, decisions. I've been paying for other people's bad habits so often. Mortgage deductions. 'Daddy's little deduction' deductions.

    And this one, "...spin it any way you want, but trying to control people's activities with tax policy is nanny-state socialism ... ". Bull-dung, either plain or unscented. It's just making sure that people pay their share of the costs that will come. Up until now, they've been allowed to duck that cost. This is just putting the cost right up front where it should be.

  11. This is a slippery slope and we should go on down it. Educating people wasn't the answer on cigarettes and isn't the answer on youth drinking of alcohol...policies need to be changed and taxes increased to discourage bad behaviors that we all end up paying for. We should increasingly apply taxes to all unhealthful foods. Most convenience stores and even many supermarkets would be left with little or nothing to sell and would be forced to change their product line. We'll all benefit. Go for the slippery slope of taxing junk foods, and then keep on going!

  12. It is unfair for someone to go to the ER who weighs 400lbs and expect the hospital to give them a new heart as well as pay for it. The cost of that free heart ends up being paid for by people who have insurance. All the hospitals do is pass on those lost expenses to paying customers by raising their fees.

    But there seems to be a lot that can be done including taxing those foods and food companies who create toxic products for humans. The food companies who put corn syrup in everything and those that use fats that are unhealthy also need to be taxed for not finding ways to create better snacks,cereals,etc. These corporations make millions using unhealthy cheap junk in their products contributing to ill health for mostly uneducated low socioeconomic people.

    People need to be educated about these toxic foods/snacks and their parents are not doing this obviously, by the shear numbers of overweight young people. If a teen weighs 200 at 16--what will they weigh at 40?

    We need new health care rules regardless if we get a national heath care program. People cannot be allowed to just gorge themselves with unlimited unhealthy foods/snacks and then expect to have free health care in our ER's.

    A hospital in Texas ended up treating 3 patients over a period of time that accrued bills that totaled in the millions and none of those patients paid a dime. Those patients used the ER because they had no health insurance and even had organ transplants for free!

    Taxing these foods is one way those individuals can contribute to health care since and if it's too expensive then these people may stop eating that junk and hopefully, get healthier. But to expect other people to pay for their hospital visits while they take no responsibility for what they do to or put in their bodies is unfair.

  13. There are some very self-righteous people posting here. The impression I've gotten from these comments is yes, tax the "bad" foods because the people posting here don't smoke, drink, or eat ANYTHING with HFCS... so the people that will be taxed are the fat, lazy, fast-food guzzling, welfare-paying, slobs that do occasionally drink soda, eat white bread, eat at a fast food restaurant occasionally, etc.

  14. If we are going to tax sugar, why not put a 1% tax on all food that is not organic? Organic foods are better for people and the environment so why not give people an incentive to purchase them?

    Perhaps a better plan would be to prorate health insurance premiums based upon controllable behavior that increases health risks. Smokers, the overweight, alcoholics, substance abusers, felons and those that engage in risky behavior such as skydiving or mountain climbing should pay a surcharge since they are more likely to need medical care. Or those that do not engage in these controllable risks should get a premium discount.

  15. Not only fair, but ingenious.

  16. This problem is systemic. Taxing people who buy these products is a great way to create a lot of resistance. It may work to some extent, but only at the cost of pissing a lot of people off. I personally support the taxes because I think something has to be done to counter the effects and long-term costs of poor diet in the U.S. But there are better ways to address this problem. 1) Tax the industries that make these vile foods. 2) Stop the subsidies of genetically modified foods that end up contaminating perfectly good groceries. 3) Subsidize produce instead.

  17. Maybe if the taxes raised prices to become comparable to more healthful foods, it would help some consumers change their eating habits. I am lucky to afford fresh (e.g. not canned w/ syrup) fruit and otherwise 'healthier' packaged snacks, but it doubles my grocery bill. There must be some people who are purchasing low-quality (high fat/salt) food items based on price, not only because they prefer it, and they could potentially benefit by paying the same for higher quality food.

  18. Juices and other drinks that are not 100% juice already have a sales tax, as opposed to 100% juice drinks. Snacks are also taxed. Even "healthy" foods contain many calories when eaten in excess. I do not think that additional taxes are the solution.

  19. Dear Capt. Concernicus,

    Unfortunately, the point of the tax is figuring out how to pay for health care costs (or really, pay for doing anything good). As a teacher, I would LOVE if kids had gym everyday K-12. They would all be much healthier and less stressed and so would I.

    But how do we pay for it?

  20. I say Yes. Tax it.

    I am guilty of obesity and a penchant for fast food and junk although I try not to overdo it. I was raised on the stuff and I still enjoy it. I will pay the extra tax readily, hoping that it is properly targeted and used. In effect I am already paying this tax through higher health care costs. If basic health care becomes affordable and available for all Americans, perhaps overall health care costs will go down. Thus this may come close to a break even opportunity for the population as a whole.

    Some myths from other posters:

    1. In this day of electronic commerce, differentiating the taxes on different foods is a trivial matter. I have lived in enough states where this is done routinely such that it is not a burden, just a programming and accounting issue.

    2. My health care costs are not outrageous even though I am middle aged and obese. I am not a burden to the system. I don't have diabetes even though I have been overweight most of my life. I work in health care and many of my colleagues are in similar situations. I may die earlier. Isn't that a good thing for health care costs? I will probably not place long term care needs on the system because of some debilitating geriatric disease.

    3. Junk food was a savior to me when I was poor. The caloric content of snack cakes at 25 cents each was enough to keep me content. Sure it is poor nutrition but I used them to supplement healthier foods to create as close to a balanced diet as I could achieve. Processed foods were more readily available, better in quality and cheaper in my neighborhood than healthier foods.

    4. If you have never had food insecurity or lived in an urban food desert, good for you; but you have never faced the tough decision of how to shop when your choices are severely limited. I have been there and many are there as I write. If people in these situations change food behaviors because of higher taxes, then we as a population need to assure that better choices are available. Basic universal health care and wellness care may be a good start but more will need to be done. At least this is a start.

  21. Though at first glance most might agree that this seems like a good way to put some money into healthcare reform, we cannot begin to tax those items because for many of the poor who subsist on these treats for daily survival, or at least a means to setting aside the rumbling of a tummy for under a dollar, until there is a means of fresh, healthy food available in the same neighborhoods and in the same capacity.

  22. Yep!

  23. Well, gosh. Cigs are bad for you and higher cig taxes (sin taxes) are laid on their sale. Why not sugar taxes (another sin tax) since everyone knows sugar has no benefit to the body ... we just like it like some people like smoking.

  24. All I can say is "Single Payer." Why on earth should my doctor be bogged down keeping track of a huge, corrupt and inefficient private (or public) insurance monstrosity? We could probably fund a single payer system with the amount we spend on privately insuring our civil servants AND keep the ridiculously inflated salaries many physicians enjoy. Check out Physicians for Single Payer. It makes sense, people.

  25. @2 (and probably others make the same point): "A tax on junk food, fast food, cigarettes, et al. is no more than a "user's fee" for the additional health care costs that these folks are going to rack up over a lifetime."

    Of course, those who eat healthy food and live longer are going to cost more in terms of social security and medicare, so perhaps it all works out even.

    I like to say I live the Sebastian Cabot diet. He purportedly said he'd rather die savoring a rich sauce on his palate rather than the taste of wheat bran. Eat well, die young(er) and happy.

  26. Absolutely I agree this a great idea. This would pay for health care reform in 2 ways: first, cut down the purchase of such products (assuming the tax is steep enough) and second, provide funding for reform. However, the nature of that reform and the exact way in which those funds are used is a separate big issue.

  27. It is important recognize the multiple issues here and address them independently:
    1. How much will a tax decrease consumption of sodas (specifically, how large a tax for how large a decrease, and as a corollary, who will be most affected (e.g., children, low-income, morbidly obese,...))?
    2. How much of an impact does decreased soda consumption have on health (taking into account what people are drinking as a substitute - e.g., juice, which is even higher is sugar)? Health should include annual health care costs, productivity, disability payments, retirement age, and the decreased happiness that illness carries.
    3. How much of an impact does decreased soda consumption have on life expectancy? This affects years on Social Security and Medicare, as well as the happiness that comes from a longer life.
    4. What are the other effects of a decrease in soda consumption, and how large (e.g., decreased pleasure, decline in the soda and sweetener industries, increase in the juice industry,...)?
    5. What will the tax revenues be use for?
    6. All costs/benefits need to be time discounted. E.g., end-of-life health expenses must be paid 25 years sooner for a person living to 60 than for a person living to 85. That’s 25 fewer years that the money could be invested and earning interest.
    7. Do the gains from decreased soda consumption outweigh the losses?
    This complicated analysis would need to carried out before one could, with any confidence, conclude that a soda tax is beneficial to society as a whole.

    Next, are there alternatives to a soda tax (e.g., health education, a fat tax) that would better achieve these ends. Each alternative would have to be similarly analyzed.

    Then there is the separate issue of whether it is normatively right to tax people for consuming soda. Though few people actually enjoy paying tax, most accept some level of taxation to support the services that government provides (law and order, infrastructure, education, ...). The question, then, is not whether to tax, but what to tax (and how much).

    A tax effectively makes the good or service more expensive for both buyers and sellers. This burden is fully reflected in the tax revenue and what it is spent on. However, the tax also reduces the number of sales that might otherwise have occurred (people who would have wanted to buy or wanted to sell, but now can’t afford to). And these lost sales generate no offsetting tax revenue, meaning that a tax makes society as a whole worse off. But some goods hurt society as whole, even though their buyers and sellers may benefit (e.g., cigarettes, gas guzzlers). Thus, “sin taxes” can exploit the market stifling effect of a tax for the benefit of society, and even generate tax revenue as a side effect. Thus, if the above analysis showed that taxing soda had net benefits for society, this would be better than a sales tax, which stifles sales of goods and services indiscriminately.

  28. For comment #2. Apparently they want a national diet forced down our throats because it will be "healthy". Why not tax joggers who might injure their knees. They will tax the healthcare system for doing something that wasn't a necessary thing. Why not tax parents of skateboarders who injure themselves. They didn't need to be out on the streets. This is Big Brother at its best.

  29. All this talk about cor sweetners. If you tax soda for having corn syrup in it you should tax all the drinks/products with the artificial sweetners (poisons) and other chemicals like MSG and unnecessary preservatives, color aditives, etc. , etc. Why focus on one killer. We need to get rid off all of them.

  30. A far better way of making junk food more expensive would be to eliminate agricultural subsidies for crops that go into junk food: corn (high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil), soybeans (soybean oil), etc. Then use the money thus saved to pay for health-care reform.

  31. Who gets to say what is healthy? Are steaks healthy? How much marbling is good or not good? Is 80/20 hamburger good? 70/30? Government is incompetent to make these decisions.
    Candy in New York state is taxable. Food, including cookies, is not. So what to do when a manufacturer decides to combine the two?
    Both Twix and PB Max did just that. In a 1993 decision by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, the issue was pared down to a question of intent: Are you buying the items as candy or as cookies?
    Any sales tax levied since then is levied based on how the item is marketed.
    “PB Max and Twix bars are packaged in several different configurations and are advertised as cookies or snacks,” said Paul B. Coburn, then the deputy director of the department’s Taxpayer Services Division.
    Because PB Max and Twix bars are similar to other cookie and snack products that are not taxed for sales tax purposes, PB Max and Twix bars in family packs advertised, marketed and sold as packaged cookies or snacks will be considered exempt from sales tax, Coburn ruled.
    However, Coburn said, when PB Max or Twix bars are packaged in individual or two-bar packages, or when the packages are sold in a multi-pack and are advertised, displayed or sold as candy in a store’s candy section, the “candy bars” are subject to sales tax.
    So, in the cookie aisle, boxes of Twix and PB Max bars are tax-exempt. In the candy aisle or near the cash register, packaged in pairs, the bars are taxed.
    “It depends where you picked up the Twix,”
    Do we still want the government to say what is healthy and what is not? What's next? Red Meat?

  32. You know those frappa-mocha-chocka-latte drinks from that fancy coffee shop that some of us are fond of are positively *loaded* with sugar and have little to no nutritional value – will they fall under this higher tax to cover healthcare junk food umbrella?

    Probably not.

    As drivers we are required by law to carry automobile liability insurance. As homeowners with a mortgage we are required to carry homeowners insurance.

    I think it should be illegal not to carry healthcare insurance, especially if you have children. It is a form of negligence just the same as refusing to buy food and clothing, or to provide proper shelter.

    Parents who pay child support to exes are required to carry health insurance for their kids as part of their court ordered child support payment plan; this rule should apply to ALL citizens with fees based on a sliding scale according to income.

    Enough already with the handouts and entitlement mentality...taxpayers can’t take anymore!

  33. Yes! Absolutely!

  34. Are taxes on unhealthy items like soda a fair way to pay for health care reform? Absolutely. I also agree with one of the writers above, get rid of corn subsidies!

  35. These taxes are fair, and necessary. People whose diet consists predominantly of unhealthy foods such as soft drinks and processed, high-sugar foods are the ones who use the largest percentage of health services. Doctors offices, hospitals and ORs are filled with adults suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, all linked directly to the ingestion of unhealthy foods (and smoking). It makes perfect sense that the people who are engaging in this unhealthy behavior be taxed up front, when they make the choice to purchase the products that make them sick.
    However, I also believe this tax should be accompanied by a serious and responsible health education campaign. People should not be punished for ignorance, and not everyone out there has access to basic health information. Therefore, we need educational public service ads run on television, we need comprehensive health education in public schools, and local health information offices or hotlines in order to be certain that the public is making choices that are fully informed.

  36. I think the idea behind an expansion of the "sin tax" concept makes perfectly good sense, it's just that defining what is or is not a "sin" and deserving of punitive taxation represents a slippery slope. Why don't we start funding the healthcare system with a portion of the revenues from speeding tickets, fines for failure to wear a helmet during activities for which it is recommended, financial penalties for having unprotected sex (assuming it could be tracked), taxes on physical inactivity, and the like? All of these things are arguably bad for your health. Then again, what about more far-reaching, and more annoying habits like public cell-phone use? Maybe that should be taxed. God knows that the government would make a killing. Perhaps legalize the illicit drug trade and tax that. There are so many possibilities. Of course, this begs the question: If I eat 600 calories of a Big Mac, but you eat a 1,200 calorie "salad", why should I pay a tax and not you? There has to be a better norm for defining a just system wherein all citizens are treated fairly. Incremental, itemized sin taxes are not it.

  37. Let's look at the underlying health problems Americans face today from a different angle: an overabundance of one product responsible for the bulk of processed food. Corn. There is too much cheap corn on the market. The government pays broke farmers to keep producing mass amounts of corn (and they often choose GMO corn, which is being singled-out as a major contributor to health problems)....and all this corn is processed by a few select companies (Cargill and ADM) and then turned into heavily processed foods and billions of gallons of corn syrup, which then must find a way to be consumed. Namely, by you and me, and all the animals in feedlots that we eventually consume (including cows, animals that aren't supposed to eat corn, and are essentially force-fed and poisoned by it). If corn were the proper price, farmers would stop destroying the environment and the food chain, because there would be no profitability in it (classic supply and demand). Read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" to get the full story on corn subsidies and their tremendous detriment to American health. There is no reason to tax citizens when simple, underlying problems can be targeted and solved!!!

  38. Dan Styer, Oberlin, Ohio.. Don't you get it? The post was about taxing one type of potato because it's unhealthy but not taxing another (just as unhealthy) because it's not unhealthy. In other words, would potatoes be taxed or not?

  39. If the government was really so concerned about obesity and health, then we would able to deduct or get a tax credit for joining and going to a gym. But we can't, which just proves that this is a revenue enhancement scheme.

  40. Will fried chicken be taxed? What if it's fried in Canola oil? What if we get cancer from drinking diet soda with artificial sweeteners? Is chocolate healthy (lowers cholesterol) or unhealthy (contains sugar)? What about coffee? What about avocado or whole milk?(high in fat)? And the list goes on and on.

  41. Let's face it, all of us will eventually have to pay some portion of our income in to a national health care system. It will be cheaper for everyone in the long run. My suggestion is that we have a tiered system based on the numbers your doctor provides: Higher fees for higher "bad" cholesterol or a higher BMI. If you have a heart attack with no family history, you pay more. If you have type II diabetes, you pay more.

    Most, if not all, of the medical information you receive (and that insurers base your monthly rates on) from your doctor can then be passed on to the insurance company (overseen by the government) to determine what your out-of-pocket costs would be. Most importantly, it's still a choice. What the government can't do is drop your coverage (in this hypothetical situation).

    I might add that doctors make mistakes, so this system should be set up to be challenged by new evidence. If the doctor says you have type II diabetes, and you don't believe you do, than you should be able to submit proof that contradicts those findings (since it could determine your rates).

  42. David,

    This article is really complicated for me. While I agree that the "sugar, rum, and tobacco" family should be taxed for its unnecessary, addictive, and therefore incredibly profitable place in our society, the emphasis on obesity -- as opposed to any other health risk or social issue -- makes me wonder how much unaddressed class and/or fat stigma play a part in this conversation.

    Caffeine, alongside sugar, is a highly addictive ingredient in soda, but we're not taxing gourmet coffee like Starbucks -- high doses of sugar added or not -- perhaps because it's part of middle to upper class lifestyle/consumerist patterns.

    Coffee also doesn't contribute to obesity per se, though it may contribute to other long term health concerns, the likes of which we may not yet be aware of, given how recent massive - and more powerful - caffeine consumption is on our society. Yet there is no public health campaign urging us to drink fewer cups of coffee. I think in some ways gourmet coffee is our country's designer drug while soda is our country's crack.

    On the same token, I'm weary of celebrating becoming richer and thinner. While I agree that our country has an obesity problem, we also absolutely have a thinness problem and, despite public perception, thinner bodies are not necessarily healthier ones and also have their associated health concerns. I have a difficult time stigmatizing one body type with its particular class associations without speaking carefully about the other.

    My first instinct is to agree with you that soda should be taxed. Not to make us thinner, but because sugar and soda are drugs, arguably with milder affects but just as addictive properties as alcohol or tobacco, and because soda is marketed toward young people. But now that I think about, I just saw a 15 year old girl at Starbucks yesterday.

  43. Yes let’s tax everyone no only the smokers. Why not tax blind and handicapped people after all they take up more space in public transportation. How about making the homeless built public housing for themselves we provide the money then they will pay us rent. I’m sure we can come up with a lot of common sense ideas that don’t address the problem.