Drop in the Bucket

Soda Taxes: Feel Great, Less Fulfilling

Soda taxes are a favored tool for fighting obesity around the world. The World Health Association is totally on board with this taxing sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). But there’s just one tiny problem. The promise that these taxes will improve health feels great, but fulfillment of that promise is elusive. In fact, evidence for an impact on health is lacking.

Adding insult to injury, a new study in Public Health Nutrition tells us that these taxes might not even affect the price of sugary drinks in fast food outlets.

A Study of the Oakland Tax

Samantha Marinello and colleagues studied the longer-term effects on SSB prices from a tax that Oakland, CA, enacted in 2017. Two years after the tax went into effect, they analyzed the impact on beverage prices in fast food restaurants.

The results are inconvenient for true believers in taxing these bad drinks. For bottled drinks, both taxed and untaxed beverages went up in price. No difference. For fountain drinks, the prices did not change for anything – sweetened or unsweetened, diet or regular drinks. Simply no effect was found that would nudge consumption in a direction presumed to be healthier. The authors conclude:

“Findings suggest that the effectiveness of SSB taxes in discouraging SSB consumption may be limited in fast-food restaurants in Oakland, California because there were similar price increases in taxed and untaxed bottled soda and no changes in fountain drink prices.”

Taxing People Into Health

No doubt, the fans of taxing sugar sweetened beverages will insist that these – and other – inconvenient results are just part of the learning process. Surely, if you implement an effective tax on something, consumption will go down eventually.

But then there’s the problem of an impact on health. This is where taxing food and beverages is tricky. With smoking, high taxes were pretty effective in getting people to stop smoking. Untaxed substitutes are not available. For beverages, though, people have many options.

For example, a recent study in Health Economics found only “small and insignificant” effects for soda sales taxes on calories and sugar consumed by adolescents. Neither did they see a significant effect on blood sugar levels. They found their sugar and calories in untaxed drinks – like sweet, milk-based drinks.

Oppositional Disorder

At this point, the insistence that taxing bad foods and drinks feels like some kind of oppositional disorder in the public health community. We have seen advocates express frustration and anger with anyone (including us) who would question the efficacy of this strategy. They suggest that inconvenient findings are the work of industry shills.

In the end, the real point should be to find strategies that actually work to reduce obesity and improve public health. If evidence emerges that this is happening with SSB taxes, great! Right now, that seems unlikely – because sugar consumption has been declining in the U.S. for two decades now, while obesity has been climbing.

It might be time to become a bit more curious about more effective strategies.

Click here for the study by Marinello et al. For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

Drop in the Bucket, photograph © LadyDragonflyCC / flickr

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December 27, 2020

3 Responses to “Soda Taxes: Feel Great, Less Fulfilling”

  1. December 27, 2020 at 7:23 am, Al Lewis said:

    Still, the tax does raise money, and if prodeeds are earmarked for (for example) recreational rail-trails, the net effect on health should be positive.

    PS You may need to explain to people under 55 why your headline is funny.

    • December 27, 2020 at 12:03 pm, Ted said:

      To raise tax revenue, I’m not a fan of taxing people with economic disadvantages first.

      You’re right about the headline, Al. The relevant backgound is here

  2. December 27, 2020 at 8:55 pm, Geoff said:

    Yep. Not one person in 100, espcially nutritionists, know that sugar intakes from SSBs declined from 2003 to 2016 by 48% https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31450689/ .

    No heath benefits observed https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db360-h.pdf .