Turn Me Upside Down

Britain’s Soda Tax: Potent Symbolism?

Will Britain’s soda tax turn out to be potent symbolism or just another leaky sandbag on the anti-obesity levee? We are well past the point of changing anyone’s mind on this polarized issue. It’s become an article of faith for some — they’ve discarded any doubts it will work. For others, it’s evidence for the irrationality of policymaking to address obesity. Perhaps to illustrate both points at once, Jamie Oliver danced a jig in the midst of a live BBC interview when the move was announced.

In a thoughtful report published by Vox, Julia Belluz makes a few key observations:

  • Taxes might drive soda consumption down further.
  • Little evidence shows an impact on health.
  • They might have symbolic value.

The question of symbolic value is an interesting one that requires a leap of faith. Even the most ardent fans of soda taxes will admit that they will not, by themselves, solve the problem of excess obesity. But Roland Sturm, a rather hard-nosed economist, points to the example of tobacco taxes to illustrate the potential for indirect effects. He told Vox:

Smoking rates didn’t drop immediately, and taxation had a small effect on consumption immediately. But eventually the taxes had an effect, and with fewer people smoking, it becomes less acceptable to smoke, so there was a feedback loop.

We view soda taxes as an experiment, now ongoing in Berkeley, Mexico, and soon in Britain. Our hope is that objective scholars will study their effects, rather than look for outcomes in which they have a vested interest. And yes, someone who is invested in hyping the dangers of sugar has a conflicting interest, just as someone invested in consulting for the soda industry does.

Click here to read more from Vox, here to read more from the Washington Post, and here to read more from the Atlantic. Click here for a systematic review of the effectiveness of food subsidies and taxes.

Turn Me Upside Down, photograph © Holly Victoria Norval / flickr

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March 28, 2016

5 Responses to “Britain’s Soda Tax: Potent Symbolism?”

  1. March 28, 2016 at 10:34 am, Allen Browne said:

    Good food for Monday morning thought. I like the “leaky sandbag” phrase.

  2. March 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm, paul childs said:

    A tax on soda alone won’t decrease obesity rates, and will likely only have a marginal effect on soda consumption, but what matters is where that marginal impact will be felt. My guess is that like tobacco it will have an impact on consumption by teens and young adults. Meaning that they’ll consume less as they’re more sensitive to price increases, and probably consume less or look for lower cost alternatives as they age. Just as with tobacco higher taxes stop young people from starting, or are more prone to quit before it becomes a well established addiction.

    Consumption decisions are based on price alone, but taxes on soda and other high sugar drinks are necessary, but not sufficient; they need to be part of a multi-stage strategy to reduce obesity, improve nutrition, and help people eat healthier; making ‘bad’ foods more expensive is a start, but ‘good’ foods and behavior need to be affordable and rewarded for the strategy to work.

    • March 28, 2016 at 5:55 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  3. March 29, 2016 at 10:04 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    Equating smoking cessation with obesity cessation, which is the implicit motive for taxing soda suggests that the Brits have a short memory and have forgotten ” Taxation Without Representation”
    The unintended consequence of smoking cessation in the US was an unprecedented population weight gain …likely the greatest incremental weight gain of all time..
    Folks can gain wt on slow food as well fast food


    • March 29, 2016 at 10:08 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Stephen.