Recently, there has been much talk about taxing soft drinks. The concept stems from the proliferation of health problems such as obesity and related illnesses. Even if taxing sugary beverages helps at all, I do not think it is a good precedent to set. People need other ways besides a tax on soda to deal with bad habits and behaviors.
Many people compare putting a special tax on soda to the recent cigarette tax hike. Raising the tax on cigarettes seems to have had a major impact on people’s smoking habits. The buzz was that the money raised by cigarette sales would help pay for medical care. This made many people so angry that they refused to keep buying the cigarettes. They did not want to support everyone else when others were not contributing the same.
Others quit because they felt guilty for spending that extra money for a habit that they knew was an irresponsible one anyway. Or, the higher price simply put cigarettes out of their price range. For different reasons, taxing cigarettes worked pretty well. There are several reasons, though that taxing soft drinks may not work the same.
Sugar sweetened beverages are certainly unhealthy. No one is disputing that. They add on the fast-acting carbohydrates like few other foods. People who drink too much soda tend to gain weight, even to the point of obesity in many cases.
However, taxing sugary beverages may not work as well as taxing cigarettes because, for one thing, sugar sweetened beverages, while enjoyable, are not addictive in the way cigarettes are. People do not have to choose to be a soda-drinker or a non-soda-drinker. They can drink soda whenever they choose, and lay off of it for any period of time without the same withdrawal symptoms as smokers face. A tax on soda would not make people choose to give up sugar sweetened beverages altogether.
This is important because it allows people to buy the sugar sweetened beverages only when they can afford them. Taxing soft drinks would not keep them from having soda. It might keep them from having soft drinks as often.
Another factor is that sugar sweetened beverages are not as expensive as cigarettes. This is obvious if you go to the store and check the prices. Even a generic carton of cigarettes may cost as much as $25 or $30, and a heavy smoker may use a carton or more a week. It is unlikely that a person would spend that much in a week on sugar sweetened beverages. The tax on soda is less effective because, even when it is added on, the price is still within most budgets.
The only way to make taxing sugary beverages work financially would be to make the tax so high that it would really become a burden to pay it. That would probably mean soda drinkers would pay twice as much or more in taxes as they did for the drink itself. An extreme tax on soda like that would be so ridiculous that a great number of people would rebel and the law would be repealed quickly.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to stay away from taxing sugary beverages is that sugar sweetened beverages are just the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds of food products that are unhealthy. Is the government then going to tax everything that causes a health problem? That seems expedient for the budget makers, doesn’t it?
I feel that it would be better to use some of the current tax funds for education and behavior modification, for those with eating disorders. People may need help controlling their use of sugar sweetened beverages, as well as candy bars, doughnuts, porterhouse steaks, coffee, or any other food that is deemed by the medical profession to be unhealthy. (I assume they would be the judges.) Taxing soft drinks is not the solution. A never-ending battle would ensue, beginning with taxing sugary beverages and not ending until many of your favorite foods were taxed out of existence.
The policy makers think they have found a solution for our bad habits, but I think that it is not a workable one. Taxing soft drinks may make some kind of difference, but it cannot change much without becoming over-taxation. In my opinion, the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages needs to be addressed. I just don’t think a tax on soda is the best way to go about it.