Soda Tax Update

Soda Tax Update

Soda Tax Update

Science, technology, and life.
May 14 2009 9:24 AM

Soda Tax Update

A month ago, when advocates of a federal soda tax laid out their case , revenue generation was a secondary point. Today, as Congress looks for ways to finance universal health care, it's front and center. At a Senate finance committee hearing this week, proponents argued that a soda tax would help fund medical care while improving public health.

How much money would a tax bring in? The Congressional Budget Office says a tax of 3 cents on each 12-ounce container would generate $6 billion per year; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities claims a penny-per-ounce tax would produce $10 billion per year .

William Saletan William Saletan

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


Will Congress agree to such a tax? According to the Wall Street Journal , "Senior staff members for some Democratic senators at the center of the effort to craft health-care legislation are weighing the idea behind closed doors." But Politico reports :

There appeared to be a bubble of support among the experts for taxing bad behavior, including a $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes and a higher excise tax on alcohol. But soda and sugary drinks found a friend Tuesday in Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Finance Committee. He categorically rejected the idea during a conference call with reporters. "No," he said swiftly, when asked if there was any chance of taxing it. "I think, quite frankly, the only reason it's being brought up is to get it shot down early so it doesn't become part of the debate. I don't think it's going to have any legs at all."

Human Nature's interest in this subject isn't about the money. It's about how we think about food, drink, and drugs. Why do we treat marijuana, but not alcohol , as a forbidden drug? Why do we regulate nicotine but not caffeine ? And how do we reshuffle these categories? How do we recast french fries as a dangerous substance ? How does soda, which used to be a drink, become a target of sin taxes, like alcohol and tobacco?

Our sister publication, The Big Money , has a good post on the soda tax debate that illustrates this struggle to reframe food. Dan Mitchell notes that the American Beverage Association is calling the chief soda-tax advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest , a branch of "the food police" who "make their living ... by bashing foods and beverages." Mitchell replies that "people in the food industry make their living ... by persuading Americans to consume a lot of crap."

That's the cultural struggle underway as Congress looks for revenue sources to fund health care. Can Republicans and the beverage industry protect sugary soft drinks from being lumped in with booze and cigarettes as a deserving tax target? And as money gets tighter and Americans get fatter, how long will that defense last?