Soda Taxes

Medical Groups Endorse New Taxes and Marketing Restrictions on Soda

For the children, of course


RICHARD B. LEVINE/Richard B. Levine/Newscom

Two leading medical groups, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association (AHA), issued a report this week encouraging legislators and policymakers to hike taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages—the most common of which is soda—and to restrict how companies market soda to kids. This is apparently the first time either group has publicly supported a food tax.

The joint report, Public Policies to Reduce Sugary Drink Consumption in Children and Adolescents, calls for "broad implementation of policy strategies to reduce sugary drink consumption in children and adolescents." It urges cities, states, and the federal government to impose excise taxes on producers and distributors of sweetened beverages. The report comes as some states—including Connecticut—are considering whether to adopt statewide soda taxes.

Beyond favoring excise taxes over sales taxes, the AAP/AHA report doesn't recommend a specific tax or taxes, though it does speak approvingly of taxes in the 10-20 percent range. The authors propose to use some of the money collected by such taxes to educate the public about "the benefits of the tax."

(One day, I predict we'll only pay one huge tax, the sole purpose of which will be to fund the salaries of bureaucrats whose job it will be to inform us about the benefits of paying said tax. Everyone will be healthy and happy and compliant, save for those who have not yet learned about the benefits of paying The Tax.)

If the report's proposed taxes and marketing restrictions weren't enough, it calls for a host of changes to federal nutrition programs, stricter nutrition labeling, and policies that promote consumption of "healthy beverages" such as fat-free cow's milk.

I see numerous problems in the report. For example, the authors acknowledge what everyone, from me to Bernie Sanders, has argued for years: such taxes are regressive, which means they impose an outsized burden on low-income consumers. But the report claims the benefits reaped by those same low-income consumers who pay a soda tax could be so great that the "tax ultimately may be progressive," rather than regressive. That's not how tax policy works, but sure.

The report is at its most absurd, perhaps, when it suggests that some states' efforts to preempt local soda taxes, such as in California, "stifle local innovation" in public health policy, as if taxation somehow fosters innovation, rather than the former serving to "stifle" the latter.

Warts and all, though, the mainstream media appears pleased with the AAP/AHA report.

The New York Times characterized its proposals as "a set of bold policy recommendations."

The Baltimore Sun editorial board endorsed the proposal, calling it "crucial to children's health."

"For those who argue that the government shouldn't be in the business of telling people what to eat, we say that it is indeed their job to protect the public health of the country's citizens," the Sun declares.

(Maybe the Sun's editors will argue next that Maryland should implement a steep tax on newspapers that accept soad advertising.)

But do soda taxes really protect anyone, as the Sun insists they do? The argument in favor of soda taxes typically goes something like this: Americans drink soda. Americans are obese. Taxing soda will reduce the amount of soda people drink. If fewer people drink soda—or everyone drinks less soda—then people will be less obese and/or more able to attain and maintain a healthy weight.

If that sounds overly simplistic, that's because it is. And even proponents of this trope know it.

Earlier this month, for example, an article in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation noted what's been reported elsewhere: Americans "have been drinking fewer sugary drinks" over the past decade. To repeat, Americans are getting fatter while consuming less of the thing we need to tax.

Hence, soda tax advocates have a serious causation problem. They note how soda taxes can help reduce soda consumption, but they fail to detail whether or how reduced soda consumption does or could lead to the outcomes they support. When pressed, some tax proponents will admit they don't know "the impact of SSB taxes on obesity and health." Which makes pleas such as the Baltimore Sun's—that soda taxes are "crucial to children's health"—all the more ridiculous.

As I've noted many times over the years, I rarely drink soda, consuming perhaps the equivalent of one six-pack every year. After I switched to a very low-carb diet last year, I've avoided foods and drinks that contain sugar or are otherwise high in carbs and cook most of my own meals at home. I walk, bike, hike, run, and play soccer regularly. I've lost a good amount of weight over this same stretch. I'm happy with my diet.

Yet I'd never advocate for the supremacy of this diet or encourage others to mimic my dietary choices.

Why? Because what you eat is your choice.

Supporters of soda taxes want to take away that choice. Don't let them.