The soda tax tells us what we can't do. That's not a good way to change bad behavior.

The state of the universe.
June 1 2010 9:51 AM

Why the Soda Tax Makes Us Angry

Higher prices are bad. Being told what to do is worse.

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In an ideal situation, the price of soda would creep up without any government intervention, naturally resulting in less consumption. That's not likely to happen, so if we want to encourage people to drink less soda, we need to figure out how to force a raise in price without inducing reactance. One oft-proposed solution is to cut the corn subsidy, increasing the cost of high-fructose corn syrup and, therefore, of production. Well, that's not likely to happen either, and even if it did, soda prices would rise by, at most, 2 cents per can, not enough to affect consumer behavior in any substantial way.

Perhaps the best option is to reframe the tax so it doesn't smack of moral policing or prompt grumblings about Big Brother. As William Saletan wrote last year, this is not just a health issue: "[I]sn't it a matter of personal choice? Doesn't taxation to control people's eating behavior cross a fundamental line of liberty?" It's common practice to publicize the long-term social benefits of a policy in order to increase public support for it, but when it comes to the soda tax, this practice calls attention to what people perceive as an affront to their personal freedoms.

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Gov. David Paterson and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg both support the tax. They have spoken of it mostly as a way to reduce consumption and to pay for the medical costs of obesity. But recently, when trying to garner support for the tax, Bloomberg emphasized that it was a quick and effective way to generate much-needed revenue for the city. He spoke of the tax as an "easy fix" that would "keep thousands of teachers and nurses where they belong: in the classrooms and clinics." This framing makes the tax seem like any other, instead of one specifically designed to control behavior. So while it may still face opposition because it's a tax and we hate taxes, it sidesteps the problem of reactance.

New Yorkers also show more support for the tax when told that the revenues would be used for the prevention of childhood obesity. In this case, the focus is on providing new choices through obesity-prevention programs rather than on taking away the choice to drink soda. Even though the goal is still to manage behavior, the approach seems more encouraging than prohibitive. Since reactance is stirred whenever we perceive loss of control, proponents of the tax must choose their words very carefully.

If we want to implement a sweetened beverage tax and maximize its effectiveness, the best approach would be to dissociate it from the larger issue of individual choice and focus on its immediate practical benefits, such as the revenue it produces. Over time, we'll get used to it. We might even wonder why we didn't do it sooner.

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Sheena Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing.

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