Poison Beverage Tax (2009 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

When someone calls for yet another obnoxious government program you should speak up and denounce it. But that’s not enough. If you want to enlighten people you have to be able to explain exactly why the proposal is repugnant.

Kelly D. Brownell of Yale University is the lead author of a Health Policy Report in the September 2009 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.


Dr Brownell and his colleagues assert that rising rates of obesity is a major problem that needs attention. The paper cites research that demonstrates a relationship between ingesting sugary drinks and weight gain. The authors’ suggestion to address the “public health crisis” is to levy a one cent per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages.

According to The New York Times the paper’s recommendation has received a lot of attention.


Both President Obama and Michael Jacobson (the director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest) endorse the idea of taxing sugary soda, and both acknowledge that a federal tax is not likely to occur immediately. It is possible, however, that some states and cities will comply with the paper’s prescription, become test cases, and pave the way for future federal taxes.

Of course, there is plenty of opposition to the scheme. Many ordinary citizens are instantly turned off when they learn that there may be a soda tax – that the government will deliberately raise the cost of living. The American Beverage Association – a soft drink trade group – has argued against the proposal and has created Americans Against Food Taxes which is showing commercials that slam the idea of taxing soft drinks.


What is wrong with the Brownell team’s line of reasoning? They base their recommendation on three assumptions.

The first is that sugary drinks contribute to weight gain, and the authors back this up with a review of several empirical studies. They are on safe ground here since they do not commit themselves to specifying how much of a factor sugary beverages are. It is reasonable to say that, other things being equal, drinking beverages with sugar will make you heavier than if you drink non-caloric beverages instead.

Critics have attacked the first assumption, saying it is unfair to pin the blame on sweet drinks. They point out that all calories count – whether from beverages or solid food. So drinking less sugary beverages cannot be the complete solution to the obesity problem. Furthermore, critics assert that ingesting calories is only part of the reason that someone gets fat. People who exercise regularly can take in more calories without gaining weight than people who are sedentary.

Unfortunately this does not even make a dent in the Brownell argument. The authors of the paper never say that reducing the intake of sugary beverages is the complete solution for eliminating obesity. They plausibly maintain that it is a step in the right direction – a factor that on balance will slow down weight gain.

The second assumption is that taxing sugar-sweetened beverages will reduce soft drink consumption while it reaps government revenues. The authors cite evidence that soda has price elasticity – that is, the more it costs the less people will buy. The Brownell team points out that income from their proposed tax can be used to pay for government health care programs – a feature that is sure to warm the hearts of those who want budgets to grow. The authors then hedge and explain that the tax could also be used to increase general revenues and need not be funneled into health care.

Opponents of the beverage tax have countered that even if it discourages people from buying sugar-sweetened drinks, consumers might decide to buy more sugary solid foods and continue to take in too many calories. Oops! Be careful opponents. That is precisely what the food police are hoping you will say so they can justify levying a tax on everything containing sugar.

The American Beverage Association has argued that because the tax money might be used to augment general revenues rather than specifically for health care the entire scheme is “a money grab.” Think before you speak, ABA. Would you endorse the soda tax if all the money was spent to combat obesity?

The third assumption in the Brownell team paper – and the most crucial – is that the government has legitimate title to the life of each citizen. If the government owns you it has the responsibility to see that you – its asset – are managed responsibly. It makes sense for the government – through its agents such as Dr Brownell – to take steps that you do not get too fat. A tax on sugar-sweetened drinks is a “nudge” – a gentle way of manipulating you to the will of “the experts.” If you accept the assumption that you are the government’s property – and many interventionists do – the only question is how effective a government tax will be. Your petty personal preferences do not come into the picture.

The knock-down argument against the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is to reject the assumption that you are government property. In fact, each individual is the owner of his or her life. You have a right to make decisions for yourself about how you will live, including what you will eat and drink. It is true that obesity is unhealthy. It may be true that you should avoid sugary drinks. But exactly how you manage your health is your job. The proper role of government is to protect individual rights – forbidding the use of force or fraud.

Of course, you might want important health-related decisions to be managed by someone else with more authority and expertise. If this describes you, go to a private organization – such as Weight Watchers – for help. Don’t try to force the rest of us into another obnoxious program.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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