The Skinny on Anti-Obesity Soda Laws
Imposing per-ounce levies or limiting serving sizes is a futile pursuit.
By MICHAEL L. MARLOW (A version of this article appeared April 1, 2013 in the Wall Street Journal)
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-obesity campaign to ban the sale of certain sugary drinks in large servings, especially sodas, was struck down last month in state court. A proposal for a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sweetened beverages also floundered in Vermont's House of Representatives in February.
Yet Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to fight on, and the wider government war on obesity shows no sign of abating. Municipalities and states continue to target sodas. In February, a bill to levy a penny-per-ounce tax was introduced in California. Politicians and the media like to portray anti-obesity efforts as a battle against a food-industry conspiracy to make America fat. (Mayor Bloomberg's limited-serving-size idea was such a nanny-state move that even the press turned on him.)
As an economist, I have two big gripes with such paternalistic public-health initiatives: The proposals aren't grounded in data or compelling economic models, and soda taxes might catalyze a dismal chain reaction, with escalating government intrusions on personal freedom.
I recently reviewed the data on the impact of soda taxes for an article in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. I also examined how these "pro-tax" studies were received in the press. The body of evidence is small, in contrast with the debate's decibel level. One 2012 study, published in Health Affairs, spawned many news stories along the lines of this one in the Los Angeles Times: "Soda tax could prevent 26,000 premature deaths, study finds."
The authors acknowledged encountering "uncertainties and methodological challenges" and conceded that any links between soda taxes and prevalence of obesity were "weak." The projected 26,000 premature deaths averted were over a decade. From the headlines, I wouldn't have guessed any of this.
The authors of the study in Health Affairs conclude that existing sales taxes may be "too low to cause changes in calorie consumption" affecting the average body mass index, or BMI. In other words, the special levy would have to be adjusted upward until the intended effect is achieved. A 2010 study in Contemporary Economic Policy estimated that a punishing 58% tax on soda might change behavior sufficiently to lower the average BMI by only 0.16 points. But a drop of 0.16 is minuscule, given that the standard threshold for obesity is a BMI of 30. (And remember, the majority of people buying these products aren't obese.)
For an individual with a sweet tooth, getting around a high soda tax would require neither genius nor brash acts. Some people in search of a less expensive sugar fix could switch to fruit juice. If the tax were low enough, they might also swallow it, so to speak. In a 2012 Cornell University study, consumers hit with a 10% tax on soda purchased fewer soft drinks for about one month. In three to six months, they were back to the base line.
Pressing ahead with soda taxes that don't work can have serious consequences. When new taxes are imposed and escalated with no measurable impact or end in sight, consumers know that the tax is nonsense. The next time there's a public-health campaign that might be worthwhile—perhaps one that would keep these individuals out of the hospital—they're resistant. In effect, they've been inoculated against messages that might matter.
Public cynicism deepens further when taxpayers see what becomes of the revenues earned by lifestyle taxes. Last year, an organization called Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids ran the numbers on 14 years of tobacco-related taxes. The report estimates that, in fiscal year 2013, states will collect a record $25.7 billion in revenue from the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. But states are expected to pay less than 2% of it on tobacco-smoking prevention and cessation—even though the 1998 settlement was sold to fund such programs. People notice when promises go unfulfilled and tax revenues are diverted from their intended purposes.
Is there a legitimate role for government in battling obesity? Perhaps. Authorities can encourage private initiatives around exercise and dieting. They can promote more bicycle lanes. But they should stay out of the business of trying to alter behavior for people's own good.
What would come after Mayor Bloomberg's downsized sodas, if his dream is realized? Government-assigned limits on what we may purchase in grocery stores, what meals restaurants may offer or even how frequently we can eat out?
The very question "what should government do?" takes us down a shadowy path. Laws are different from products or services sold on the market. If you hired a personal trainer to help you lose weight and you actually got fatter, you'd fire the trainer. You can't fire a regulation.
Mr. Marlow, an economics professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is the author of "The Myth of Fair and Efficient Government: Why the Government You Want Is Not the One You Get" (Praeger, 2011).
Bob Achermann: Soda taxes lose, even in blue states
The following article appeared in the Orange County Register, authored by Bob Acherman, Executive Director of the California/Nevada Soft Drink Association.
Obesity is considered a more serious health issue than smoking and tobacco use. It's considered more serious than heart disease, HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse or mental illness. The only health issue considered more serious than obesity is cancer, according to a recent nationwide survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Californians, like the rest of the nation, acknowledge obesity is a serious problem. Unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activity are considered greater health risks to children than illegal drug use, according to a 2012 Field Poll of California voters.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, television's celebrity surgeon, addressed the obesity crisis at the National Governors Association Conference in Washington, D.C., this month. He implored governors to develop their own statewide plans to reduce obesity, including new laws and regulations.
A bill to tax sweetened beverages has been introduced in the California Legislature. The revenue would pay for a new childhood obesity program. Similar legislation was introduced in 2010 but failed to gain traction. Another new tax to pay for another new program will leave many voters skeptical.
Two California cities made attempts at taxing soda and other beverages last November. Richmond, a working-class city outside San Francisco, seemed an ideal location to pass the first tax of its kind on beverages: Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly seven to one, and the city's residents traditionally vote in favor of new taxes. The same political calculation applied in El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles, where residents a few years earlier voted to increase their sales tax to 9.25 percent.
Despite promises from city council members that the tax revenue would be spent on programs to reduce obesity, Richmond and El Monte voters sent strong messages of disapproval on Election Day. In Richmond, 67 percent of voters were against the measure. In El Monte, the no vote was more lopsided: 77 percent.
These rejections were the latest in a tidal wave of opposition to government intrusion over what to drink and how much. Four years ago in reliably progressive Maine, the state Legislature approved a tax on sweetened beverages, which was quickly overturned by 65 percent of voters in a referendum. Washington State's Legislature passed a similar beverage tax in the final hours of the 2010 session, and it, too, was overturned by referendum. Philadelphia's mayor and the former governor of New York each twice attempted beverage taxes but were unable to have them enacted.
What should we glean from voters in arguably the bluest sections of the bluest states, who are rejecting soda taxes by large majorities? It's this: What you eat, drink and feed your family is your choice and does not need government control, oversight or influence.
The same poll that showed obesity is a major health concern among Americans also found that 82 percent of respondents believe the major reason of the country's obesity problem is too much time in front of TV, video games and computer screens.
It's nonsense to think government can – or should – change what we eat and drink. If we want to get serious about obesity, we should start with education – not laws and regulations.
The Price Of Soda Could Be Going Up
One law maker is proposing a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages. Proponents of the tax argue that it will curb obesity rates. Opponents of the tax argue that it is bad for business and imposes an unfair tax on consumers. Read more.
Soda And Freedom Of Choice
A potential penny per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages could mean a drop in business for many retailers. Local restaurants say that this tax is just another example of government overreach. Read more.
Is A Soda Tax The Answer?
According to Rep. Joe Farias a penny per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages could bring in $2 billion dollars to the state and promote healthier lifestyles. However, many Texas residents argue that healthy lifestyles begin with balanced diet and exercise, not taxes. Read more.
Texas Lawmaker Proposes Soda Tax
Lawmaker’s are discussing adding a penny per ounce tax to sugar-sweetened beverages. Opposing parties feel that a tax won’t make soda lovers deter from buying the product. Read more.
Beverage Tax: Texas Residents Speak Out
State Representative Joe Farias believes that a soda tax is the answer to "a dire need" for money for Texas schools. Many Texas constituents disagree. Opponents of the tax argue that Texas has enough taxes and that deciding what to eat and drink should be a personal choice. Read more here.
Soda Tax Is Back
State Representative Joe Farias filed the “soda tax” bill last session but it failed to reach a committee hearing. This season, the bill stands a solid chance of reaching a meeting, according to Farias.
LA Times Editorial Slams “Sin Taxes” and “Nanny States”
In a recent Op-Ed, Julie Gunlock of the LA Times rebukes governments around the nation who are acting to impose legislation that seek to control the things that people choose to eat and drink. Read More.
California voters say “No” to beverage taxes at the polls
On November 6th, voters in the California cities of El Monte and Richmond voted against a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The measures were rejected by 76.8% and 66.9%, respectively. Read more.
A Soda Tax? How About A Potato Tax?
Politicians are serious about imposing a tax on the “culinary villain du jour,” soda pop. However, food science and research is constantly evolving and lately, it’s been hard to keep track of food heroes and villains. Read more.
Many Americans Ambivalent Over Laws Aimed at Healthy Living: Poll
Most accept rules for safety, smoking, eating, but also worry about a 'nanny state'
NORWALK, Conn., USA – March 20, 2012 – With a recent flood of new regulations or proposals aimed at governing lifestyle choices such as smoking, eating or cellphone use, is the United States in danger of becoming a "nanny state"?
According to a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll released today, most Americans remain ambivalent about the issue, agreeing that policies that aim to protect public health and safety are sometimes necessary, but believing as well that adults should take responsibility for their own actions, and consequences for health.
Eighty-one percent of respondents agreed and 33 percent strongly agreed that laws aimed at protecting public safety -- for example, regulations around safe driving or childhood vaccinations -- are important to keeping Americans safe.
More than three-quarters also agreed that such initiatives do actually work. But on the other hand, almost two-thirds (61 percent) worried that these same laws might be too coercive, impeding individual freedoms.
"The public is somewhat schizophrenic about laws and policies that are intended to improve health and safety and reduce injuries and accidents," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll. "Most people favor many regulations that protect them but they worry about our becoming a 'nanny state.'"
The poll released today quizzed respondents on 14 different policies, laws and programs intended to improve health and safety. Some of the findings include:
91 percent supported a ban on texting while driving, while 74 percent "strongly" supported this initiative. 70 percent support, 43 percent strongly support banning talking on cellphones while driving. 78 percent support, 34 percent strongly support requiring eating establishments to reveal nutritional information on menus.
86 percent support, 55 percent strongly support requiring the regular round of childhood vaccinations (mumps, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and polio). 80 percent support, 58 percent strongly support banning smoking in restaurants and public places.
76 percent opposed, 43 percent strongly opposed employers citing obesity as a reason not to hire. 65 percent opposed, 34 percent strongly opposed employers not hiring smokers. 62 percent against, 37 percent strongly against the taxing of sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
And even as they supported many individual initiatives aimed at protecting the public good, 81 percent of respondents agreed that individuals should take responsibility for their own actions and "be free to make their own decisions, even if they suffer as a result." One expert stressed that a balance must be struck between maintaining both public health and individual freedoms.The poll included 2,211 U.S adults over age 18 surveyed online between Feb. 27-29, 2012, by Harris Interactive, one of the world's leading custom market research firms. HealthDay is a leading producer and syndicator of health news.
The complete findings of the newest joint Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll are available here. HealthDay's news report is available here. Full data on the poll and its methodology are available at Harris Interactive.
HealthDay is a leading producer and syndicator of evidence-based health news for consumers and physicians and is one of the largest health news syndicators to Internet sites. Its daily consumer health news service http://consumer.healthday.com/ appears on more than 5,000 websites such as Yahoo!, MSN Health, USNews.com, Everyday Health, and government websites like Healthfinder.gov, and MedlinePlus. A daily video version of the top health news story of the day is featured on HealthDay TV, a 90-second daily news broadcast appearing on several major media and U.S. government websites.
HealthDay also produces Physician's Briefing (www.physiciansbriefing.com), a daily news service for physicians and other medical professionals. This service is licensed to hospitals, managed care organizations, media companies, and point of care providers like Epocrates.
HealthDay's custom content division produces specialized content for a variety of audiences and works with some of the larger health portals in the United States.
About Harris Interactive
Harris Interactive is one of the world's leading custom market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers expertise in a wide range of industries including health care, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer package goods. Serving clients in more than 215 countries and territories through our North American, European, and Asian offices and a network of independent market research firms, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us - and our clients - stay ahead of what's next. For more information, please visit www.harrisinteractive.com.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR:SODA TAX ABOUT RAISING REVENUE, NOT TRIMMING WAISTLINES
Debbie Mouser, a registered dietitian from Dallas, writes in a TCU Daily Skiff Letter to the Editor on March 28, 2011, that the soda tax will be “an ineffective way to reduce obesity” or “trim waistlines.” Mouser cites a 2010 Journal of Contemporary Economic Policy article that found a soda tax would “raise revenue for governments” but would more importantly place “an
FORT WORTH BUSINESS OWNER CALLS TAX "A BURDEN"
Bud Crow wrote a letter to the editor of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram on March 23, 2011 saying that the soda tax adds “to the burden of hardworking Texans and small businesses.” Crow, a small business owner from Fort Worth, argued that the “discriminatory tax on soft
PROPOSED SODA TAX RECEIVES MIXED REVIEWS
Consumers in Texas could soon see the price of a six-pack of Coke increase significantly, 72 cents to be exact. According to State Senator Eddie Lucio, increasing the tax on sodas and energy drinks could assist in balancing the state’s budget. On the contrary, others have pointed towards Texas politicians’ wasteful
RESIDENTS OPPOSE SODA TAX
Morgan Thomas from KTRE News reported on March 2, 2011, that some Texas legislators are supporting a soda tax in an effort to close the state budget gap. The Center for Consumer Freedom’s spokesperson, J. Justin Wilson, states "I think this is just a form of social engineering, plain and simple, and the government shouldn't be in the business telling me how much I can weigh.” Texas resident Mike Bentz told Thomas, "The bottom line and the overall motive is revenue. With all the budget deficits, local, county, state and federal governments, they're all looking for money…from a financial standpoint, not from a health benefit or trying to get people to stop.”
TEXAS SEN. LUCIO PUSHES FOR SODA TAX
Allen Essex of the Valley Morning Star reported on March 2, 2011, that Texas Senator Eddie Lucio has proposed a tax targeting sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, J. Justin Wilson, has stated ”Texas politicians must cut down on their spending binges instead of making citizens swallow this not-so-sweet tax.”
TEXAS SODA TAX: NOT SO SWEET
Ellen Goldberg of NBC DFW reported on March 1, 2011, that State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr.’s proposed 1-penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar and artificially sweetened beverages is intended to assist the state’s deficit while promoting health awareness. However, many residents and watchdog groups are outraged by such an attempt to control their diets. Dallas shopper Cindi Stewart affirms, "I think that's going toward Big Brother.” Senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, J. Justin Wilson states, "The government has no right to tell us what to eat or drink or to tell us how much we can weigh, frankly. It's not the government's business, so I wish the government would butt out."