The reactions to the soft drink tax that has been bandied about are about what I expected.  Half telling about the good it could do for American diets and waistbands while filling state tax coffers while the other half are asking if this is too 1984ish where Big Brother is watching down on our perceived well-being. No surprises really and there have been some highly nuanced discussions about the merits and fears of the possible tax. It is worth noting that this tax has not been proposed by healthcare legislation (it shows up nowhere in the forming healthcare bill), the President, or any official legislative body. This is simply an idea that has some heavyweights in the medical community supporting it and the President has said it is an issue that may be worth considering.

While in New York you can see some of the funniest signs, one that says “you’re too stupid to make good personal decisions about food and beverages,” which would be a good indictment of this tax if it weren’t true. The issue isn’t really whether people are smart enough or not to make these decisions (in practice we’ve shown not to be) but rather that there is a powerful lobby and marketing campaign behind the soft drink industry that can cause confusion over health issues. And truly a large percentage of our population is not smart enough to make healthy decisions, how many kids can resist the pull of sweets especially in the face of heavily marketed products?

On the other hand there really is no concrete evidence that a tax on soft drinks will lower the obesity rate.  Two states that have levied heavy taxes on soft drinks are Arkansas and West Virginia, which happen to fall at #3 and #10 on the most obese states in the union.  Does this tell us the tax doesn’t work?  No, considering the other major factors of weight (full range of diet and exercise) there is no way to isolate the effects of a soft drink tax without serious study, so don’t believe the cannard that this simple presentation is all you need to know about the situation.

In fact, about 40 states have very minimal taxes on soft drinks, not enough of one that makes a choice difference but one that does add a bit to state tax revenue.  In fact, looking at the history of state taxes on soft drinks it seems that North Carolina repealed their tax program which was the state Arkansas based their soft drink tax on.

Overall this is a sticky issue.  Do soft drinks fall into a category like cigarettes and alcohol? I don’t know that it is an apples to apples comparison as young people don’t have access to those products but can go buy a soft drink without their parents consent at one of the multitude of places they are sold.  Most likely the prices of soft drinks are very elastic with this age group but it’s possible that even younger kids, to those who aren’t used to the ‘at least one coke a day’ routine this could make a difference as they could spend their money on something else.  My bet is that the “something else” would be unhealthy snack food and calorie loaded fast food so it is a matter of pass the buck.

Honestly I don’t know how much the government cares about curbing the purchase of soft drinks as much as generating tax revenue off of their purchase.  I think they realize that if consumers are priced out of soft drink purchase they will simply spend that money on other food and beverage choices that are just as unhealthy and found at the same locations.  This won’t affect health or obesity but if the tax is set at a golden level it could generate a significant amount of tax revenue.

What do you think of the idea of taxing soft drinks? Will it curb soft drink consumption? If so, will other unhealthy foods and drinks see an increase in consumption? Will the tax generated revenue be enough to hold up struggling health care policies? Please comment and let me know what you think!

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