There's Nothing SWEET About the National Soda Tax

Rep. Rosa DeLauro's SWEET Act would implement an excise tax on soda and other sweetened drinks. Supporters of the measure are difficult to find.


Renee Comet / Wikimedia Commons

Last month, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) proposed the SWEET Act, an excise tax on sweetened beverages. The tax, which has been billed as a national soda tax, would lay a one-cent duty on every teaspoon of sugar in soft drinks and other beverages. The proposal is intended "to curb obesity, diabetes, and the resulting health care costs."

It would add about 50 or 60 cents to the average cost of a six-pack of soda.

Why is this a good idea?

"When a two-liter cola is 99 cents and blueberries are over three dollars, something has gone very wrong," DeLauro told attendees.

For the record, a pint of blueberries contains more than 40g of sugar. That's about as much sugar as you'll find in a pint of soda.

Rep. DeLauro's bill, H.R. 5279, would exclude calorically sweet drinks I can only suspect that DeLauro and her Connecticut constituents enjoy, including soy, rice, or dairy-based milk products, pure fruit and vegetable juices, and alcohol beverages.

The bill is a lousy idea for several reasons, many of which I've discussed previously. First, research has shown that soda taxes are an ineffective tool for combating obesity. Some untaxed drinks will contain more sugar than those that are taxed. Soda taxes—like lotteries—serve primarily to tax those in lower income brackets. Soda consumption has fallen over the last decade even as obesity has risen. What's more, people should be able to drink a damn soda—or a rice-based milk substitute, for that matter—without the taxman judging them for their choices.

Most Americans agree. Charitably, DeLauro's bill has gained little traction. A Rasmussen poll this month found just 1 in 5 Americans surveyed support DeLauro's proposed tax. Only a handful of soda summit attendees were quick to throw their support behind the measure. Congressional co-sponsors were tougher to find. Reports at the time of the bill's introduction claimed DeLauro was "in conversations with a potential SWEET Act co-sponsor." Ultimately, just three of the DeLauro's 434 House colleagues joined her in supporting the measure, which appears to have stalled in committee.

But the handful of soda tax supporters may be insulated from these facts, given the echo chamber in which they reside. For example, Rep. DeLauro publicly announced her intentions to introduce the tax during a videotaped appearance at the Center for Science in the Public Interest's insiders-only "soda summit" in June, shortly before a New York State court sounded the death knell for New York City's reviled soda ban. (The fact one New York City health department official who spoke at the "soda summit" described the city's appeal as "critical for future efforts by the department to take action" can only be described as good news for those who think the city's future efforts shouldn't include such buffoonery.)

The CSPI summit was co-sponsored by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic arm. DeLauro's proposed tax is similar to a one-peso-per-liter tax that took effect this year in Mexico. That tax became law thanks to a $10 million donation from the same Bloomberg charity that co-sponsored the CSPI soda summit.

If these names seem to pop up again and again—Bloomberg, DeLauro, CSPI—that's no coincidence. When few favor soda taxes, those few rule the pulpit.

But successful movements often result from many diverse voices rising above the din. Conversations about soda taxes and bans, however, are the result of a select few in positions of power who make a lot of noise. If it seems like you hear the same names—DeLauro, CSPI, Bloomberg, Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman—over and over again on this issue, that's largely because they constitute the tiny faction of Americans who support such policies. As a result, when it comes to soda taxes, it's safe—even advisable—to ignore their noise.