This tax on fizzy drinks stinks

Whether it is cigarettes, booze or soda, it’s not the place of the taxman to dissuade us from our enjoyable bad habits.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

They are nutritionally valueless, apparently. They rot your teeth. They make you fat. They may cause diabetes, heart disease and even pancreatic cancer. So who could possibly object to taxing fizzy drinks? I could. The idea may be gaining fans on both sides of the Atlantic, but the last thing we need is the taxman deciding what we eat and drink.

An article last October in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) noted that the consumption of sugary soft drinks has exploded in recent years. In America, between 1977 and 2006, the number of calories per person provided by such drinks doubled. (Sales of juices also rose, but much more slowly, while sales of milk fell.) On average, the article says, American adults and children get about 170 calories per day from such sugary drinks. In Mexico, the take-off of soda sales has been even more dramatic, doubling between 1999 and 2006.

Does soda make you fat? The authors of the NEJM study argue that there is a positive association between body-mass index (BMI) and the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Given the much-hyped ‘obesity timebomb’, they propose a tax of one cent per fluid ounce tax (about 34 cents per litre) on sugary drinks – the equivalent of about eight pence on a regular can of Coke or similar soft drink. Such a tax would raise, the authors argue, $150billion per year that could be spent on healthy eating initiatives.

In fact, as the NEJM article points out, soda taxes have been around for a while, with 33 US states imposing levies averaging 5.2 per cent. However, the authors note that taxes at that level have little effect on behaviour, and recommend that the authorities go much further. As the lead author of the study, Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told NPR last year: ‘Using a tax, much as has happened with tobacco, to try to change consumption patterns in a way that would benefit overall public health and provide a very much-needed revenue for programmes, seems like a home run.’

Whether things are really so simple is another matter. For example, looking at the graph of changing beverage consumption presented in the NEJM article, the total amount of calories consumed from milk, soda and juices seems to have barely changed for children between 1965 and 2006. All that has happened is that milk has been replaced by soda and, to a lesser extent, by fruit juices (which actually contain just as many calories as full-sugar soda). For adults, total calorie intake from drinks has gone up, but not by such a huge amount as to explain increasing obesity rates. Notably, for both adults and children, the calories consumed from soda fell between 2002 and 2006, possibly as a result of the increased popularity of diet drinks. Does all this really justify placing a swingeing tax on these drinks when Americans are drinking fewer of them?

Changing consumption of beverages, USA

Nor is it sensible to assume that such taxes actually work. Brownell’s assumption that declines in smoking rates are simply due to tobacco taxes seems misplaced. In reality, there are all sorts of reasons why smoking has declined, from health concerns to changing fashions, that have little to do with the price of a pack. Moreover, the kind of really high taxation that would change behaviour would also encourage people to find sources of supply that aren’t taxed at all. Bootleg Coca-Cola, anyone?

Such behaviour taxes are inherently contradictory. On the one hand, they are supposed to teach us to be good citizens by persuading us to choose the ‘healthy’ option. On the other hand, they are an important source of revenue for governments, an easy-to-justify way of grabbing a bit more cash from us. No wonder, then, that cash-strapped administrations in American cities and states from California to New York are positively fizzing with enthusiasm at the idea that a can of Pepsi should cost us more than our waistlines. For example, Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter (no, really), has proposed a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks to help plug the city’s $120million budget shortfall, while similar tax ideas have been put forward by New York state governor David Patterson and the daddy of US behavioural intervention, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Nor is it just our friends on the other side of the pond who want to tax to the Pepsi Max. Politicians in Denmark, Romania and Taiwan have recently been discussing taxes on ‘junk’ food and soda. UK Guardian columnist and former editor, Peter Preston, recently gushed about the joys of such fizzy fiscal policies: ‘Let’s save many more lives than any new drink-driving purge. Let’s send hundreds of millions more to our Treasury in the best of all possible causes – one where personal gain trumps minimal pain.’

As it happens, the deleterious effects of sugary drinks are far from proven. Of course, if you’re the kind of person inclined to down a couple of family-sized bottles of sickly sweet fizzy drink every day, you’re quite likely to pile on the pounds. Even then, obesity is not an illness and the overwhelming majority of obese people live to much the same ages as everyone else. For most us who may enjoy a can or two, however, it is unlikely that drinking soda will make much of a difference to our waistlines or our health.

More importantly, it’s not entirely clear why it’s any of the state’s business what we choose to drink. The role of the wise doctor, noted the microbiologist Rene Dubos in the Sixties, is ‘to make it possible for his patients to go on doing the pleasant things that are bad for them – smoking too much, eating and drinking too much – without killing themselves any sooner than is necessary’. Even if we believe the health zealots, the endless interventions of the state in matters of health will at best allow us to enjoy an extra year or two of old age in exchange for taking all the pleasure out of life for the other three-score-and-ten. For many people, that much demonised fizzy drink is a small source of joy. Let them enjoy it in peace.

But there’s a bigger problem here. It is vitally important that we retain our sense of autonomy over our own bodies and our own choices. If we allow the state to determine whether or not we smoke, eat fast food, drink soda or anything else, we undermine even the most basic capacity for independent thought. We might end up shiny, slim examples of radiant health, but in a social and political sense we will be disabled, unable to make sensible judgements for ourselves. It’s this loss of control over own lives that should really be taxing us.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Patrick Basham and John Luik dismissed the myth of an obesity tsunami. They also reviewed 2009, a year of myths about smoking and obesity. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said we should stop bullying fat kids. Rob Lyons was sick of the endless diet of government intervention. Patrick Hayes reported from the fast-food joint due to be shut down becasue it was too close to a school. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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