Taxing The Sweet Tooth

A small tax on sugary beverages would not affect the pocketbooks of occasional soda-drinkers, but it could curb the kind of excessive soda consumption that leads to obesity.

By Krystal Gabert, Associate Editor

I’m a skeptic at heart. I despise the word “epidemic.” The fake “trend” stories every week in the New York Times make me cringe. (Dear NYT, Just because somebody saw two hoodie-adorned twenty-somethings smoking pipes in Brooklyn does not make such behavior the latest craze sweeping Youngster Nation. Love, Krystal)

That said, it’s no secret that we’re in the middle of an obesity… well, an obesity epidemic. The evidence is undeniable—exploding rates of heart disease, expanding waistlines and recent CDC studies suggesting that as many as 1/3 of Americans may develop diabetes during their lifetime. Something’s gotta give.

We are all responsible for our own health, and there seems to be a growing… well, a growing trend of “Xtreme Food,” which—as far as I can tell—exists basically so that anyone who eats it can brag to their friends about having eaten something so unhealthy and/or disgusting as to be potentially life-threatening. I came across a blog post that catalogs a few of my favorite disturbing selections, including: the one-pound bacon cheeseburger between two donuts; deep fried butter; and a large pizza topped with McDonald’s cheeseburgers.

In the midst of such insanity, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study last month proposing the possibility of a new tax on soda and other sugary beverages in an effort to curb obesity. And while I agree with some criticism of the tax, which points out that drinking an occasional soda will not cause a person to be obese, I’d suggest that if consumption is infrequent, then the corresponding infrequent tax won’t break the bank. I drink liquor very infrequently—there’s an unopened bottle of vodka that’s been in my freezer for three months, but I still paid an inflated price on that bottle in order to cover the state of Wisconsin alcohol taxes charged to the wholesaler, shipper and manufacturer of the vodka. As an infrequent consumer, the inflated cost did not sway my purchasing decision at all.

A soda tax would, I would imagine, function quite similarly. Though the levy of a small tax on sugary beverages would not affect the pocketbooks of occasional soda-drinkers, it could curb the kind of excessive soda consumption that does lead to obesity, and it would do so by incentivizing healthier purchasing decisions by consumers.

The study which proposed the soda tax points out that the over-consumption of soda and other sugary beverages is a leading cause of obesity. And while there is understandable resistance to such a tax from the beverage industry, I think it’s worthwhile to note that if soda purchases dip, consumers will not simply stop buying beverages—they’ll just replace some of their soda purchases with other drink purchases. There will still be money to be made.

Obesity is putting undue strain on our economy generally and our healthcare system specifically. Putting in place measures that create market incentives for consumers to make better nutritional decisions can help us part of the way toward reducing national health risks. Providing accurate nutritional information in addition to supplying consumers with healthy living information and healthy alternatives to unhealthy foods—steps that the food and beverage industry are already taking head on—will help us even further along that road.

The rest of the way must be navigated by sound decision making on a personal, consumer level. May I suggest putting down the human-head-sized donut burger and picking up a carrot? And if you really need to impress your friends, step away from the deep-fried butter and, perhaps, learn a coin trick.

Stay tuned for Food Manufacturing’s editor-in-chief, Karen Langhauser, who will offer her counterpoint.

Agree? Disagree? Have a favorite beef+donut snack you'd like to defend? Let me know: