Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Column Archive |  On Twitter: J Huget and MisFits  |  Fitness & Nutrition News  |  RSS Feeds RSS Feed

Soda Tax, Food Policy and Politics

That Kelly Brownell is at it again.

Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale University and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, has written much about what he thinks the government should do to cinch in America's ever-widening waistlines. Co-author of the 2004 book Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It, Brownell is now proposing a tax on beverages containing sugar and high fructose corn syrup, from sodas to sports drinks, as a means of both cutting demand and consumption and raising revenue (ideally to be used to promote consumption of healthful foods currently being displaced by soft drinks and the like).

Brownell has considered and countered likely points of opposition -- including the arguments that the government shouldn't meddle in the free market, that a soda tax is regressive and that overweight doesn't necessarily equal unhealthy.

I bristle at the prospect of solving problems by throwing taxes at them, and I'm not sure the government should hold much sway over what we do and don't eat. But I do appreciate the impulse to make healthful foods more affordable than sugary sodas.

Still, I find myself bristling more than appreciating.

Help me out here, readers. Read Brownell's article and let me know what you think.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 10, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health Policy , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Common Asthma Treatment Ineffective
Next: A Most Unusual Lunch: Placenta


The effect of price and tax increases on cigarettes is being used as the "best case" for a similar strategy in regards to sugared drinks.
When one looks more closely at the data on cigarette use, the strategy is highly questionable.
The CDC notes that a 10% increase in price causes a 2% decline in adult smoking prevalence. Conversely that means that of the 100 smokers who will pay a 10% increase in price (approximately 70 cents per day for pack a day smoker) only 2 will "receive the treatment" of quitting. The others will simply pay the new tax. By any standard, a treatment that only works for 2% of the treatment group would be considered to be ineffective especially if it has the adverse effect of impoverishment on the 98%.

Posted by: dalaidog | April 10, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I agree, I would go a step further and tax any product marketed as food with higher sugar/sweeteners or salt if nutritional experts deem the additional ingredient as unhealthy.
No more heart attack in a can soups.

Posted by: knjincvc | April 10, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

When I was in highschool we had a program which the administrators called "federal lunch". Everyone was eligible and I went to school in a pretty well off area, so it was probably some USDA program rather than welfare of some type. What it was was a subsidy to kids who bought a complete balanced lunch. A normal chicken sandwich was $1.50 or $1.75 I think, but if you got the chicken sandwich with vegetables, pasta, and a milk, (ie a balanced, healthy meal) the meal was only $1.50 because of the federal lunch subsidy. I've often thought about what it would take to implement something like that nationally. Let any fast food restaurant that desires offer healthy meals and get a subsidy for each one sold. They'd have to meet guidelines on nutrition and price, but the government could kick in say a dollar for every healthy meal. I wonder how much it would cost and whether it would reduce obesity related healthcare needs enough that we'd come out ahead.

Posted by: bill3 | April 10, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I'm going to start with an attack on the author: Kelly Brownell is a fat blow-hard.

Now that I got that out of the way (and I do feel better) there is ZERO EVIDENCE that any tax will have ANY effect on obesity. If you tax sodas, what will people start drinking? Fruit Jiuces? They have JUST AS MUCH SUGAR as soda. Yes...even the natural ones. It's just a matter of where the sugars are from and what kinds of sugars they are. Why don't we just go whole-hog and start pulling soda from the shelves, outlawing cola products and claiming a victory? Then we'll have a black-market with people selling cola on the side of the street shooting anyone who tries to stop them (I'm all over the place today...don't stop me).

Anyway, "fat" food taxes are the stupidest thing ever proposed...let's just set an ideal weight, and tax people for being over it (the true fat tax). We can do it on a sliding scale even...0-5 lbs - $10/lb; 5-30 - $20/lb and so on. THAT is an incentive to loose wieght.

Posted by: byte1 | April 10, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree that raising the price of food will not proportionally decrease the number of people partaking. It is much like cigarettes I suspect.

Some people simply want to eat what tastes good to them and processed food tastes good. Making it more expensive will only mean they spend more money on it as opposed to going without.

Posted by: Billie_R | April 10, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Drinking soda is all a lifestyle, a choice, a free choice.

The people who are drinking the soda and overweight will later then pay the weight bearing price of health problems. That is how they will pay.

And why sports drinks? At least most of them are attempting to cut down on the calories and boost it up with electrolytes.

Posted by: RandomLifeGirl | April 10, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

There's a fundamental difference between consuming sodas and smoking cigarettes that has not been touched upon.

Smoking cigarettes is bad for you. Always. Smoking one cigarette introduces massive levels of carcinogens directly into your body.

Consuming sodas is not quite the same. Many foods, if consumed at high levels, are quite bad for you. However, for most of them, if they are consumed in moderation, there's no ill effects. For example, olive oil is a relatively healthy oil, but like all oils, if you consume too much of it, you will get fat -- should it be taxed, too? I consume soda, but I'm not overweight. So, can I avoid the tax?

Really, comparing this to a cigarette tax is just stupid.

Posted by: rlalumiere | April 10, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

If there is to be a tax on beverages containing sugar and/or high fructcose corn syrup, on the grounds such drinks may contribute to obesity, than anything and everything that may add a lot of pounds should be taxed. There should then be a special, anti-obese tax on all foods having a lot of calories, as well as televisions, computers, books, newspapers, magazines, video games, all of which may discourage people from physical activity, losing pounds, becoming less obese.

Soda drinks are not like cigarettes in being inherently unhealthy for people. Alloe people to become better informed about health issues, but we do not need additional silly taxes.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | April 10, 2009 10:49 PM | Report abuse

The reason why people are overweight is that people are overworked. Even before The Second Great Depression started, worker's pay has stayed exactly the same relative to inflation as it has since the 70's. And that was allowing for the fact that during the 70's the 40-hour work week was what our business customs had achieved a consensus upon. Not so now. Anyone having a job left over given today's economic conditions is being forced to work 50 to 70 hours just to keep that job. We now have a culture of presenteeism where the true index of a worker's loyalty to the corporation is seen as the number of hours seen by the manager of the worker sitting in the cubicle. This decreases exercise and increases stress. The cost of housing is also unaffordable, causing commutes of 2 to 3 hours each way for a middle-class employee just to be able to afford a decent house for his or her family in a safe community with a good school district. So what choice does our poor worker have but to slink back home exhausted and have a meal that tastes pleasant (in other words, sugary or fatty since both are what flavor and savor depend on) in order to relieve the stress of yet another crazy day of work! And of course they are too stressed out to even exercise... I don't care what people say about exercise reducing stress, if people are too emotionally exhausted they will not exercise period. And think about it.. you almost never see a fat executive or business owner... because they are the ones who can afford to take the time to take work off the job and spend their 9 to 5 skiing in the mountains while daily threatening their subordinates with job loss if the code doesn't get finished on time. So what I think is that the would-be food police should get off of their sanctimonious gluttiei and instead look at issues such as the unconscionable divide between worker and executive work/life balance. We need to eliminate the definition of exempt personnel and make everyone work a maximum of 40 hours per week. People eat the food they need to eat, but they don't have the time to take the exercise to burn it off.

The Eternal Squrie

Posted by: eternalsquire | April 11, 2009 1:41 AM | Report abuse

I agree, to some extent, with the comments above that being overworked is a factor in many people being overweight. Combine a long work week with stress from jobs, commutes, home situations and many people often seek tasty, "comfort" foods, easy to prepare, that often have unhealthy ingredients, as well as too many calories.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | April 11, 2009 3:40 AM | Report abuse

It's none of the government's business what I eat.

Personally, I swore off of fizzy sodas about 3 years ago, I'm not a juice drinker (I don't see the benefit from them), and I currently have a vice of green tea with some sugar in it.

But why should it be some bureaucrat's decision as to whether I get taxed for that. It's an awful idea that the government is our mommy telling us not to eat bad foods.

Plus, it's a slippery slope. Could the government then tax high-fat foods? Could it require that we demonstrate we eat enough fish and green vegetables each day?

The problem isn't soda, or candy, or cookies. The reason people are fat is because we are genetically programmed to eat lots of stuff. And we are blessed with an abundance of food. That's a bad combination.

This idea of a tax is counterproductive, intrusive, and is something that someone out-of-touch would consider.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | April 11, 2009 5:20 AM | Report abuse

This sets a very, very bad precedent! If politicians don't like 'something' they simply add a tax on it to, in theory, to stop people from doing it.

What is next, a tax on sex as it causes overpopulation? Tax on computers as it causes (if you list to RIAA/etc) piracy of media?

Posted by: meadmkr | April 11, 2009 5:22 AM | Report abuse

I would be less concerned about proposals to tax unhealthy foods if I were more sanguine about the ability of the government to get it right when determining which foods are healthy vs. unhealthy. For example, right now the government perversely encourages us to eat a grain-laden diet. To tax-favor it would make matters worse. I can easily imagine laws tax-favoring fruit juice, which, while a better choice than sugared cola, is really little more than sugar water itself. As far as I'm concerned, that makes any such tax proposals non-starters.

Posted by: Abalone | April 11, 2009 7:26 AM | Report abuse

If people want to eat high fat foods and drink sugary,HFCS drinks then they will continue to do so. They will just pay the higher prices and buy spend less on nutritional foods.
Sin taxes many work on tobacco, but has not worked on alcohol and will not work on empty calorie foods.
People just refuse to change their lifestyle, by exercising and cutting out junk foods.

Lifestyle change is the key---not taxes.

Posted by: morningglory51 | April 11, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

What the H*ll? Tax soda and sports drink? What's next? Oh I know, let's tax air because it's polluted and leads to Respiratory problems!! Taxes are not the solution but education is. When was the last time you saw a warning on a can of coke or a bag of chips?

Posted by: ChuckHill1 | April 11, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This article is part of the problem. Lets blame something/someone for our problems. How about people get off their butts and excercise. New Flash!!! Make your children play outside and make them turn off their Xbox,Playstation, etc. Children spend way to much time in front of the TV and not enough time being active.

Posted by: NKYKevin | April 11, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

I would suggest the first thing this Yale fellow do is to stop his New Haven representative Rosa DeLauro and her Monsanto "pollster" lobbiest husband from implementing HR 875. In the name of "food safety" they would regulate "any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation." So then we would be 100% beholden to Agribusiness and its foolish attempt to apply the profit-maximizing level of production to something as fundamentally important as the food supply.
And while he is at it why doesn't he advocate for something like the Missoula County, Montana "Community Food Assessment" whereby each individual community can better understand its needs concerning food.

Posted by: citizen625 | April 11, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

You're right. A tax on soda is regressive--but it could fund a subsidy of healthy food, such as reader bill3 suggested.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | April 11, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I waited my 21 years to become an adult so I could make my own decisions concerning my lifestyle. I am not about to give up my rights to make my own decisions to every crackpot that comes along and wants to play Hitler.
If the junior Hitlers of the world don't like who or what they have become then let them change themselves, that means learn some SELF CONTROL and stop trying to make our government and others responsible for your failures and indecisions. I feel comfortable in making my own decisions, right or wrong, and will live by my decisions, right or wrong. Its caled responsibility for ones own actions. The U.S. goverment with all the taxes levied on the American people, ( income tax, homeowners tax, gas tax, durable goods tax. license plate tax, inheritance tax, ect...) collect over 50% of every American workers income. Its time the American people get to keep thier money where it belongs. In their savings account for the furture of their families. If it is so important and bad for Americans to be smoking or eating or drinking an item. Then it should not be produced or sold in this great freedom of choice country called The United States of America.
Thats my opinion which is still was not free a smany have died to ensure I have that right, but at least thats not taxed too!

Posted by: nocroman | April 11, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Yes. Tax sugar/fructose soft drinks, but first, remove the subsidy that high fructose corn syrup now enjoys. In fact, remove the subsidies on the big four: rice, wheat, corn, & soybeans. Our diet needs more fruits and vegetables and fewer grains and grain-fed animals.

Individuals do choose, but their choices are influenced by their economic, social and physical environments. If not, obesity would not be the epidemic is is now. By changing the costs, people will alter their choices.

I believe that "sin taxes", however, should be used on countering the problems that arise from the "sin." Otherwise, governments will and have encouraged that "sin" for the revenue. In Washington State, people promoted opening the liquor stores on Sundays "to get more tax revenue."

Therefore 1) remove the subsidies; 2) tax the sugars added to all drinks; 3) use the revenues to improve nutrition and treat obesity.

Posted by: ENTP | April 11, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I agree with many of the emails previously submitted. Taxing sodas/sugary beverages will not work! Again - looking at the symptom and not the cause. People eat and drink this stuff....because they need to to feel full, comforted....and because its quick and easy. Less we forget.....stress drives all of this; and we have a society that does not actively promote healthy living. This is just one part of the equation.....I don't care how healthy you are eating and drinking....if you are not moving your body....your are doomed to your metabolism will crawl, stop,and die.

I do have a solution....of course...If you want to truly help our beloved obese population - send them to France for a year. Maybe we can even develop a stimulus package around that?!

Posted by: adhmum | April 11, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

For those who have posted that it is none of anyones (including the government's) business what an adult eats and the consequenses thereof, I have a point for you to consider.

The unhealthy (by choice in this argument) whom are uninsured or underinsured DO become a burdon on taxpayers eventually due to their future medical care needs. The costs to care for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and a myriad other consequences of obesity are astounding. And guess what...WE pay for medicare and medicaid. So the next time you see an obese person shoving down a few quarter-pounders you may want to think to yourself 'do I feel like paying to keep this irresponsible jerk alive?'...just a thought.

Posted by: trailnutva | April 11, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I'm just glad to see many folks here decide that it's not the government's place to be meddling in our soda habits!

I want government to protect our God-given rights to life, liberty, private property, the pursuit of happiness, and the sanctity of contract law.

Liberty includes the freedom to make decisions others feel are stupid (and may be stupid), as long as they don't hurt anyone else. Let's take individual responsibility for bad outcomes. And let individuals profit from wise decisions.

I want the government to protect us from piracy on the high seas, counterfeit currency, and threats to our national sovereignty.

Anything else?

Can't think of anything else I want from the government offhand. Voluntary relationships between free individuals will handle most other issues more fairly and efficiently.

-Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: As U.S. healthcare reform proceeds, anybody with a logical opinion on it must first answer the question: What is the proper role of government?

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | April 12, 2009 12:35 AM | Report abuse

Kelly's solution to a runaway train is to attach lead weights to the caboose rather than turn off the engine.

Soda is water plus HFCS (or sugar if you are trendy, eat kosher or live in Mexico).

Clearly water is not the target of the tax so it must be sugar. If sugar is indeed the cause of obesity etc, then why not simply ban it as a food additive altogether. Why this round about way of stopping the train?

Posted by: davidG4 | April 12, 2009 6:14 AM | Report abuse

As a sports nutritionist I think it makes no sense to tax sports drinks. They provide a fueling and performance benefit to people competing in races (and training for them) for any event over 60 minutes. 10-milers, half marathons, marathons, triathlons, cycling races. Discouraging their use puts people at higher risk for dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and hyponatremia (all of which can be deadly).

I think people need to get off the HFCS soap box and just consume less processed foods period.

I don't think caloric sodas or juices should be taxed either. That's calling out one particular culprit for obesity and that is a huge mistake. I believe one of the reasons people gain weight is the lack of movement and regular exercise.

Our bodies are meant to move. How many people actually get 10,000 steps a day? If you have a desk job and don't exercise, I bet you only get about 3000-4000. Guidelines are at least an hour a day. Get up and move and maybe you'll feel like eating healthier foods.

Thanks for the post... going to blog about it.


Posted by: DCnutritionXprt | April 12, 2009 8:11 AM | Report abuse

What will these tax and spend liberals tax next? Where do I send my tea bag?

Posted by: meltinsley | April 12, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

First, as ombudsman and some others say, it's none of the government's business what I eat or drink. It is beyond the scope and role of government. Read the Constitution.

Second, it's true about Medicare/Medicaid/uninsured people being burdens on the rest of us (presumably healthy) people. So then let's abolish these mandatory subsidized burdens. Then people will pay for their own lifestyles and mistakes.

End of problem. Think Libertarian.

Maria Folsom
East Glacier Park, Montana

Posted by: mariafolsom | April 12, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Well said Maria. Although I don't claim to be a Libertarian, that is exactly what needs to happen. Individual responsibility is the key to most of our social & economic issues in this great country. What ever happended to the taking responsibility for your own actions perspective?

Posted by: meltinsley | April 12, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I find it interesting that lots of posts that agree with the column's author have been published, but mine which disagreed - has not!

That's fair mediation....

Posted by: csmarx | April 12, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company