Sugary beverage taxes: are they really all that sweet?

In February, members of the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors proposed a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages including soda and energy drinks which would generate revenue for recreation and nutrition programs.

City governments across America are proposing taxes on sugary beverages in the fight against obesity, but will this tax really trim the waistlines of consumers like how lawmakers imagine?

These proposed taxes seek to reduce the consumption of “free sugars,” sugars processed or refined by manufacturers and animals.

It is true, the World Health Organization (WHO) documented that free sugars are correlated with weight gain and tooth decay, in addition to increasing the incidence of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes among consumers. Last week the WHO advised people to halve their free sugar consumption from the originally recommended 10% of total calorie intake to 5%.

Because of the risks associated with free sugars, adding the sugary beverage taxes will increase the price of sugary beverages, causing a decrease in the quantity demanded of these drinks.

As people become less inclined to purchase soda and other beverages, they are also saving themselves from potential health costs and more practically, expensive drinks.

This author, however, is not convinced that taxes like these are the best way to discourage consumers from drinking favorites like Coca-Cola or Red Bull.

Sin taxes, or taxes that are created to discourage certain activities within a market, are used to discourage the purchase of goods such as alcohol and cigarettes. The sugary beverage tax functions in the same way.

According to a Gallup poll, the number of smokers in United States is down to one in five Americans. The data collected by Gallup reveals that among young Americans, college non-graduates, and people living on the East coast, the number of smokers in those demographics are going down.

People are acknowledging the health risks of smoking and the number of smokers is decreasing, but there are still consumers willing to pay the price of cigarettes.

But even though the numbers indicate a decrease in smokers, how is it that there are still smokers despite the taxes imposed on them? Perhaps even more relevant to our campus community, why do Puget Sound students still pay so much for hard alcohol when they go to school in a state with one of the highest tax rates on spirits?

The answer is simply that if a consumer wants something bad enough, they remain likely to pay a higher price to get it.

If a change in price is not effective in reducing obesity among the general population, then the tax is ineffective.

It would be unfair to producers of soft drinks and the population meant to benefit from these tax revenues in the future.

If people stop purchasing soft drinks as the tax intends, the revenues meant to fund recreation and nutrition programs will eventually reach a point where there will not be enough money to sustain the programs.

By closing down many of these programs, there will not be any follow through in ensuring that participants are remaining thin and leading healthy lifestyles.

In the tax proposal produced by the Board of Supervisors, this tax would generate $31 million dollars annually to fund these recreation and nutrition programs. This is problematic because the city of San Francisco is budgeting for these programs from revenues that are likely to decline if the tax works the way lawmakers expect.

Junior Tessa Brott sees merit in educating people about nutrition, but is not as confident in the effectiveness of a sugary beverage tax in achieving reductions in obesity.

“I don’t think a tax will stop people from buying sugary beverages, but people might get the idea that sugary stuff is bad and will be conscious of that when making those purchases. I guess I’m not sure how effective it would be in reducing obesity as a policy,” Brott said.

A program geared towards changing lifestyles is definitely more relevant and would be more successful in achieving the goal of preventing weight gain.

“I think exercise and nutrition could play an equal part in obesity reduction. But when I imagine a kid finishing up a soccer game and being given a Capri-Sun and rice krispie treats as a snack, I think that that’s problematic,” Brott said.

The largest problem with free sugars is that they are in most processed foods.

Despite the presence of these free sugars, lawmakers do not seek to end the consumption of these goods.

If the effort to reduce obesity among Americans was genuine and well-developed, then programs would be more geared towards helping individuals lead active lifestyles free from processed foods.

By excluding processed food producers from this tax, lawmakers are singling out soft drink producers as the biggest perpetuators of obesity in America.

This puts soft drink producers in an unfair position as the scapegoats for America’s struggle with obesity as consumers continue to freely purchase processed foods in grocery stores across the country.

If lawmakers wanted to see real change, they would create a tax that would comprehensively affect all food producers that incorporated free sugars into their foods.

They would also fund programs independent of tax revenue that would educate people about nutrition and motivate them to exercise.

By singling out soft drink producers with a tax on sugary beverages, lawmakers are lazily punishing these companies for the goods they produce when the real blame should really be placed on the consumption habits of consumers.

If lawmakers want to see a trimmer, healthier America, then taxes like these are ineffective in combating obesity. Instead, they are a perceived short term solution to a much larger and embedded problem.