Taxing soda to make you stop drinking it.

Science, technology, and life.
April 10 2009 8:01 AM

Sweet Surrender

Taxing soda to make you stop drinking it.

Girl sipping a glass of soda.
Should we tax soda?

The food police are closing in on their next target: a soda tax.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

New York City's health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, is leading the way. He's the guy who purged trans fats from the city's restaurants and made them post calorie counts for menu items. Lately he's been pressuring food companies to remove salt from their products.

Now he's going after soda. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Frieden and Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, propose a penny-per-ounce excise tax on "sugared beverages." That's nearly $3 per case. Why so much? Because this tax, unlike the petty junk-food taxes of yesteryear, is designed to hurt. Its purpose is to discourage you from buying soda, on the grounds that soda, like smoking, is bad for you.

Persuading Americans to regulate soda the way we regulate cigarettes won't be easy. Isn't soda a kind of food? Isn't food a good thing? And isn't it a matter of personal choice? Doesn't taxation to control people's eating behavior cross a fundamental line of liberty?

In their article, Frieden and Brownell methodically attack these objections. Going well beyond science, they lay out a political battle plan for the war on junk food.

Step 1 is to convince us that soda isn't really food. If you think this can't be done, wake up: Frieden has already done it to trans fats. In the NEJM article, he and Brownell spurn the notion that soft drinks are sacred because "because people must eat to survive." They tartly observe that "sugaredbeverages are not necessary for survival."

Step 2 is to associate soda with products we already stigmatize and regulate as harmful. On this point, the authors quote Adam Smith: "Sugar, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessariesof life, which are become objects of almost universal consumption,and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation."

Step 3 is to persuade you that one person's soda consumption harms others, thereby transcending personal liberty. The authors write:

The contribution of unhealthful diets to health care costs is already high and is increasing—an estimated $79 billion is spent annually for overweight and obesity alone—and approximately half of these costs are paid by Medicare and Medicaid, at taxpayers' expense. Diet-related diseases also cost society in terms of decreased work productivity, increased absenteeism, poorer school performance, and reduced fitness on the part of military recruits, among other negative effects.

The Medicare argument is dubious, since, as my colleague Daniel Engber points out, fat people die younger and thereby save the program years of coverage. But the really cheeky pitch is the one about military recruits. Apparently, Coke is now a menace to national security.

Step 4 is to target kids, because our urge to protect them makes us more amenable to paternalism. "Sugared beverages are marketed extensively to children and adolescents" and "now account for 10 to 15% of the calories consumed by children and adolescents," Frieden and Brownell observe. In fact, soda makers "exploit the cognitive vulnerabilities of young children, who often cannot distinguish a television program from an advertisement." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoes this plea: "We have to do something to help our children."

Step 5 is to tempt policymakers with cash flow. "A third consideration is revenue generation," the authors note. "A penny-per-ounce excise tax would raise an estimated $1.2 billion in New York State alone."

Step 6 is to persuade voters that the tax is for their health, not for cash flow. Frieden and Brownell note the political importance of this message: "[A] poll of New York residents found that 52% supported a 'soda tax,' but the number rose to 72% when respondents were told that the revenue would be used for obesity prevention."

Three years ago, I thought the movement to legislate against junk food was politically futile. But that was before the successful assaults on trans fats, calorie counts, and opening fast-food restaurants. Those victories, apparently, were just the appetizers. The next course is behavior modification through taxation. And this article is the recipe.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. A drug that cures stealing. 2. Poverty, biology, and intelligence. 3. A black market in children.)

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