Taxing soft drinks to combat obesity

One commonly heard propositions to combat the obesity epidemic is to tax soft drinks. No doubt, sugary soft drinks are a common and important source of “empty” calories, but will taxing soft drinks really reduce obesity rates?

This assumption was now examined by Yale University’s Jason Fletcher and colleagues, in a paper just published in Contemporary Economic Policy.

The researchers collected information on taxation of soft drinks with respect to specific excise taxes on soft drinks and other snack taxes, general state sales taxes, and special soft drink exceptions to food exemptions from sales taxes in several US States between 1990 to 2006. Height and weight data was used from the representative NHANES III data set.

Using complicated models accounting for a variety of potential confounders, the authors confirmed that state soft drink taxes have a statistically significant impact on behavior and weight; however, the magnitude of the effect is surprisingly small.

Thus, a 1% increase in the state soft drink tax rate leads to a decrease in BMI of 0.003 points and a decrease in obesity and overweight of 0.01 and 0.02 %, respectively.

There were also significant differences on how soft drink taxes affect different demographic groups. For instance, a 1% increase in the soft drink tax rate decreases BMI by over 0.01 points for the lowest three categories (income below $20,000) and nearly 0.01 points for the highest category (income above $50,000).

In addition, The impact of state soft drink taxes is larger for females, middle-aged and older individuals, individuals with greater education, and varies according to race and ethnic categories.

The authors point out that soft drink consumption represents only 7% of the total energy intake and one should therefore expect only modest changes in population weight through soft drink consumption responses to small tax increases.

In fact, they estimate that even a 20% increase in soft-drink taxes would only lead to a mean BMI change of 0.06 points, although the impact may be somewhat larger for some demographic groups.

Indeed, even if soft drinks were to be taxed at around 58%, the current average taxation rate for cigarettes, the researchers estimate that mean BMI in the United States would likely only decrease by 0.16 points and reduce the proportion of overweight or obesity in the population by 0.7%.

In comparison, the between 1990 and 2006, the average increase in population BMI in the US was around 2.3 points.

While the authors conclude that although the effect of increased taxation of soft drink may do little for obesity, they point out that there may be other health benefits, including improvement in dental health.

Additionally, an increase in the soft drink tax of this size would raise considerable revenue for the federal and state governments that could perhaps be used to implement other measure to address the obesity epidemic.

While the authors by no means wish to condone the increased consumption of soft drinks, their analysis clearly suggests that any hope that simply slapping a tax onto soft drinks will somehow reduce obesity rates appears unfounded.

Arya M. Sharma is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Alberta who blogs at Dr. Sharma’s Obesity Notes.

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  • Dr Jay

    At least this “sin” tax would hit where it counts.. money. Much better idea than San Francisco’s lame ban on Happy Meal Toys. Instead of banning toys that go with high-fat happy meals, why not just ban the high-fat itself. Or tax it. Make it law that McDonald’s can not sell it as a “happy meal” if it has french fries or any fried food or any soda. Period. If the nanny state is going to absolve the people of any type of accountability or personal responsibility, then at least do something that has a tiny chance of making a tiny impact on childhood obesity.

  • Mike

    We can’t child-proof the world. Besides, even though I am not a huge fan of soft-drinks I do not like the idea of the government telling me what I can and cannot eat or drink.

    • Doc Gooden

      A sin tax isn’t the government telling you what you can and can’t drink. It’s incentivizing a certain behavior with the tax code. You may not agree with the use of taxes for this purpose (you would be similarly against the mortgage deduction if you’re being consistent), but you’re still free to eat and drink whatever you want.

    • gzuckier

      i kind of like the idea of the government telling me i can’t eat food full of lead and/or salmonella. that way i have the time to actually do all the stuff i need to do in my life, instead of spending my days doing lab tests on my groceries.

      • Alice

        Hmmm….considering your posts about the extreme right you may support taxing conservatives, or death panels for them? At the very least banning their dangerous, truthful posts…hmm….I forgot about taxing their posts first…gotta generate income for the government to care for those we supposedly neglected.


    The governments role, at most, should be to enforce that the product contains what it is said to contain and that it meets the USGA standards for food safety. They may offer information about content in relation to other food choices and its impact on health. Otherwise, stay the heck out of my kids Happy Meal.

    Fois gras is nearly ALL fat and you don’t hear the Canadians groussing about it on nutritional grounds. What’s next? No drawn clarified butter for my lobster?

    • Mike

      Well said Doctor Paul. This is another of those slippery slopes. What is Obamacare manages to stay law, or is replaced with a similar version, what might we see then. Perhaps vouchers or ration stamps to limit how much “bad food” you are allowed? This is just another example of the government overstepping its bounds and I fear it will get worse. Just this week former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta suggested that Obama could use the US military to enforce his agenda.

      • Paul Watson

        Do you disagree too with tax on cigarettes and alcohol as a harm reduction measure, and if not, why is this different to food?

        • Mike

          Paul, while I agree that cigarettes and alcohol are far more dangerous than soft-drinks I must say yes I object to such taxes. I think it would be hypocritical for me to do otherwise. In my opinion, we cannot cherry-pick, either we tax none, or we tax all, not just tobacco and soft-drinks, but alcohol, fat, red meat and anything else that might not be healthy for us.

          Why stop there, many people are injured playing sports, Football, Hockey, Soccer, Boxing, those would need to be heavily taxed as well. How about over-exposure to the sun, not good for you as it can cause skin cancer, so we might need to use taxes to control that as well, including all those tanning parlors. What about industrial manufacturing, mining, and farming, especially farming. It is a very dangerous thing to do as illustrated by the vast numbers of farmers killed or injured each year. We need to tax the heck out of agriculture in order to discourage it.

      • Doc Gooden

        Here’s the complete paper. He was referring to his power as commander-in-chief of our armed forces in reference to our Afghanistan policy (obviously), not his domestic agenda as implied by your (and The Blaze’s) comment. I’ve never seen such a hatchet job of selective quotation and unsubstantiated inference in my entire life.

        • Mike

          Doc Gooden, see my response below regarding this.

      • Alice

        Yes, and Bill Clinton cleaned up his act on several levels out of self preservation…not taxation.  I am, personally, tired of the government making money off of industry (indeed, cigarettes are horrible, but why should the government make more money than the manufacturer?).   Government force should be a last resort, not lucrative for the government to waste.  

        We have a rich uncle who wants a type of class warfare, but the election showed us that the voters are saying….enough already….we can’t afford it….and more taxation is not the answer to containment of the masses.  We may have stretched our rich uncle to the max because he has way too many beneficiaries and the benefactors are stretched to the max….the breaking point!  

        If people believe this tax is for their own good quit buying pop or send some extra money to the IRS if you think the your Uncle Sam “needs” it.  

      • gzuckier

        Thanks for posting the link which led to the original; that way I could see that “Obama could use the US military to enforce his agenda” is the Hysterical Right’s way of referring to Podesta’s suggestion in the piece that, as CinC of the Armed Forces, Obama has the right to order them to 1) dump “don’t ask don’t tell” and 2) put solar panels on Air Force hangars. Just the kind of tyranny the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the Second Amendment, no doubt.

    • thedocsquawk

      I doubt the impact of soft drinks on obesity is anywhere near the impact of foie gras and drawn butter on lobster. Also, Canadians are talking about soft drink taxes.


    I was apoplectic for a moment having read your piece and then the link pertaining to Podesta. I linked again to the Soros company in charge of tampering with the foundation of our Country

    I didn’t see the intent of suggesting military force being used on us citizens. I don’t trust our government worth a hoot and wouldn’t put it past ‘em but I just don’t see the implied threat…and I am always looking. Thanks.

    • Mike

      Doctor Paul, I should have read a bit more on the original quote before using it. I must agree, in researching it a little bit further I too think that the quote I originally read,

      “How does one “move the country forward”? In the center’s report, Podesta explains that Obama can use executive orders, rulemaking, and even the armed forces “to accomplish important change” and that such means “should not be underestimated.”

      was likely not a accurate summary and it was taken out of context. I apologize for not investigating it just a bit further.

      Like you though, I am not particularly trusting of government, especially the current administration. This might make me tend to take such statements at face-value.

      • gzuckier

        Anyone who doesn’t trust the government but believes anything the nutty right wing blogosphere and echo chamber bleats without tracking down the primary source is willfully deceiving themselves. How many times does Lucy have to pull the football away before Charlie Brown catches on?


    @Mike…I am uniformly guilty as charged!!!
    My wife and I are diametrically opposed in the political arenas of life and I have become more and more interested in vetting controversial information ie, my FOX/STOSSEL and her CNN (Clinton News Network). It helps keep us honest.

    If Canadians are looking into a soft drink taxes, it’s their business. They are Canadians. When we travel sometimes we bump into folks from Canada and from UK. I told my wife how to differentiate them as she couldn’t at times.

    I told her the Brits always have a cigarette in one hand, at the bar, on the beach (Barbados) and even the pool or at breakfast…the Canadians have the cigarette at all the same times AND a drink in the other hand. Despite these indulgent “sins”, they are wonderfully fun travelers to hang around with…taxed or not taxed. Digressed.

    • Alice

      And if you believe some of the “doctored” stats we are supposed to believe they are healthier than we are, and have better health care. Must be something in that miracle water up north. Hmmm……maybe they can tax God…..

      • gzuckier

        No, the opponents of universal healthcare or government healthcare or any change in our healthcare at all are supposed to argue that Americans have the shortest lifespans in the industrialized world because of our terrible lifestyles not our terrible healthcare, despite all the stats that show that we smoke and drink less than anybody else, not argue that we have better healthcare because they live longer with worse habits.

        • Alice

          Can I suggest for the umpteenth time if you want the truth to read Sally Pipes…Forbes ranks her as one of the top 30 experts in the nation. She wrote a research filled book about the skewed facts you just quoted….but her conclusions against Obamacare mean many will not read her because they may have to see the fallacy in own argument.

  • HJ

    The real issue is the subsidies that are given to grow large quantities of corn. This corn, of course, is used to sweeten soft drinks as high fructose corn syrup. Get rid of the subsidies, the price goes up. The government saves money by not subsidizing soft drinks and the prices rise, making it more of a financial burden to buy them.

    • Alice

      Some of the subsidies are going….but to my knowledge diet sodas are wildly popular with no corn syrup.

      If this 1%tax goes through it won’t even touch the dental work caused by the addiction to Mountain Dew! That stuff eats right through the enamel, but in certain regions food stamps pay for it. Ironic…we pay for crappy food, because now one in eight Americans are receiving government aid for food…then we pay for the consequences of bad food choices.

      Maybe pop should not be allowed if you use food stamps? Originally food stamps didn’t allow chips and junk. But……oh my…..gotta give them choices….can’t crush their self-esteem….but you can give them the ammunition to hurt themselves with taxpayer subsidies.

  • Dorothy Green

    1. The majority of healthcare dollars are spent on preventable chronic diseases.

    2. Chronic preventable diseases are caused primarily by a poor diet.

    3. The most significant poor diet in the US is overeating of unhealthy food, undereating vegetables and fruit. (34% obesity rate projected to be 42%)

    4. Dr. David Kessler and others have clearly shown the trigger of overeating are combos of sugar, fat and salt in processed food (include corn/soy fed animals here as well).

    5. Besides stopping subsidies at least for corn we need to treat those 3 substances in processed food and cornfed animals as potentially addiction.

    Call it R.I.S.K. (Reduction in Sickness Kitty). Perhaps younger folks don’t understand the word kitty as a “group contribution” but the education would be a great part of the health message associated with RISK.

    Dr. Kessler also gave us Nutrition Facts from which RISK could be calculated – say $.003 per Gm sugar and fat and 100 mg of Sodium. Consider a message say – your RISK is $.16 – for a package of Twinkies.

    The entire Produce section would be RISK FREE as would be unsalted nuts, seeds, pasture meats and eggs and fish that is considered save. Fats, sugars and salts in bulk would not be subjected to RISK. Grains are not included as what makes the hotdog or burger bun tasty is the salt, sugar and fat. As Michael Pollan says ” eat as much junk food as you want, as long as you cook it yourself”.

    Of course the RISK funds would have to go into preventive programs that are appearing now but far too slow as most are voluntary – kids school lunch programs etc.

    The point is that treating sugar, fat and salt (in processed food, beverages and corn fed animals) follows the tobacco model to provide a strong message as well as revenue to break Americans from a destruction eating culture.

    It will be called regressive but it is not. The poor have enough calories available to them through subsidies and other food programs. It is the quality of what is available not the amounts of what they choose – these is where RISK can make the difference.

    Preliminary calculations for RISK may be as high as 100 billion a year as 90% of money spent on food is for processed food, we consume 200 lbs of animal protein/person, 570 lbs of dairy/person/,160 lbs of sugar (60 lbs HFCS) and 4000 mg of Sodium/person. If the US does not do RISK not only will our healthcare cost destroy our economy but we will continue faster on the slippery slope to the destruction of Earth by our eating culture.

    • gzuckier

      The old “externalized costs” thing again. It’s more expensive to sell perishable foods than processed high fat high salt high fructose corn syrup foods, because they perish; but that’s because the industry doesn’t have to pay the full costs of the junk food in terms of health, which get paid by the rest of society. If the actual costs were to appear on the price tag, KFC would be unaffordable rather than a cheap family meal.

      • Alice

        If the actual costs were to appear on the price tag, KFC would be unaffordable rather than a cheap family meal [end quote]

        Or how about just the truth about the ingredients? Information the consumer can digest and make their own decision about. The cost isn’t really the driving factor people who make bad decisions claim. It’s reality they aren’t facing.

        Programs with accountability are far better than free lunches.

        • Mike

          Maybe, instead of arguing about the problems with the US food supply, and the average American’s diet and taxing unhealthy food we should just start feeding everyone Soylent Green. It seems like it would be eco-friendly, after all it is recycling, would not stress the soil and rob it of valuable nutrients, doubt it would be worth a hoot for sweetening soft-drinks. It might even be able to solve the mal-practice issue, as every mal-practice suit could be offset by a bonus from the SGPA© (Soylent Green Producers Association).

          Now, before someone takes me serious (as if that is likely to happen) I am joking.

  • Jay

    Our society is moving towards making health care a right, and placing the duty to provide it back on the population (via democratically elected government.) As this happens, methods of displacing the imbalance of healthy tax payers and unhealthy tax payers have to be determined. Although these kinds of taxes may not be effective, they are the first steps for a long journey.

    • Mike

      Jay, it is a very slippery slope that, I think, we need to avoid.

      • gzuckier

        A lot of people think letting poor people die in the street for lack of coin to pay the doctor is a slippery slope we need to avoid.

        • Alice

          Gzuckier…how many people died last year from lack of medical care?

      • Jay

        You may be right, but like it or not, I see the movement towards tax-payer funded heath care for the masses gaining momentum with every passing year. Simply put, people don’t want to allocate the proper amount of their income for health care. They’d rather buy electronics or cars or houses. Personally, when these programs are in full swing, I don’t want to pay for the smokers and lazy people. There has to be a way for them to pay more taxes to cover the added burden that they will create on the inevitable system.

        • Alice

          Yes, and, ultimately, universal care means people die from lack of innovation, waiting lists, and infections. Yet, the lifestyle of those who often pay little to nothing into the system remains the same.

          Those who actually work and pay part of their insurance are now paying higher premiums. My daughter is a nurse and her workplace forced everyone to have their waist measured, cholesterol checked, etc. It was a points test. Many failed and now have to pay extra per month.

  • Mike

    “The actual culprit in both obesity and heart disease appears to be linoleic acid found in seed oils of various sorts.”

    Now, I’m just an old engineer so maybe I’ve missed something, perhaps someone can set me straight. Now, I do not know about heart disease but it seems to me that the actual culprit for obesity is simply eating too much. If you eat 2500 calories a day more than you need does it really matter if those calories are from lettuce and carrots or cheeseburgers?

    • gzuckier

      No, they haven’t repealed the Laws of Thermodynamics. Calories taken in greater than calories expended, you gain weight; less, and you lose weight, no matter what the diet plan. The only variation that can be is that different diets allow/encourage you to consume fewer calories.

      Re the omega 6 thing; that’s been rattling around a while, it’s not conclusive yet. Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are required in the diet. Omega 6 are involved in the inflammatory process, while omega 3 are involved in countering it. Our current diet leans heavily on omega 6 oils, which leads to the argument that that is pushing inflammatory processes in the body, particularly in the arteries; that’s not universally accepted as true, however. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that consuming a couple of spoonfuls of ground flaxseed, or a handful of nuts (tree nuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, pistachios; not peanuts or cashews), both good sources of omega 3, every day is correlated with good health.

      I don’t think I’ve seen the omega 6 thing applied to obesity anywhere, just inflammation; however, another benefit cited for eating a handful of nuts a day is that it seems to help in keeping your calorie intake down (back to the first paragraph), although nobody knows whether that’s related to omega 3 content or fiber content.


    “Soylent Green is people!”
    Charlton Heston

    “Soylent Green is people….over the age of 59….who smoked…and craved cashews and charred red meat….and didn’t wear a helmet while motorcycling….and were BMI challanged…because of their addiction to Mountain Dew…because of their PTSD from their Catholic upbringing…who never adequately applied SPF 50 while walking to their cars…which urged them to burn too much Earth Blood to fuel their SUVs…”
    I’m just say’n.

    • Alice

      LOL Yes, and let’s add they were tokin’ but not inhalin’! Actually, if the Tea Party movement doesn’t get a movin’ they will be the first one on the grindin’ list….of course, the compassionate liberals will be a tellin’ us they were a wantin’ to sign up firsti (like taxation for all the programs they keep claimin’ they want, but don’t volunteer to do), but they will suddenly go vegin’! :)

      • Mike

        Don’t worry Alice. I hear that they have some special “camps” they want to send all us conservatives and Tea Party members to. Just to re-educate us and get our thinking in-line with……er…… I mean get us thinking clearly.

        • Alice

          They already do and we are paying for it…….it’s called public school and liberal colleges. Clear thinking (?) ……..honestly, I think the public schools teach us what to think on their assembly line…..not how to think…….and we saw the product at the last election.

          • Mike

            I agree with you Alice. Schools no longer teach critical and objective thinking skills. Their union driven agenda seems determined to create legions of shallow, intellectually dull liberals lacking core values and eagerly willing to submit to the nanny state. Were my children still of school age I would have to give serious thought to a quality private school or even home-schooling.

    • Mike

      Doctor Paul, I’m gonna be laughing all day. Thank God I do not care for Mountain Dew and like my beef so rare it moos when I bite into it.

    • Alice

      I agree….I would support the schools being atheistic…with no religion taught if they would just go back to the 3 R’s and quit playing the village role. I am tired of paying for them to teach immorality under the guise of some type of public service.

      I gave up my career and home schooled for over 22 years and it was worth any sacrifice. I pay for part time private school and I highly encourage others to do so. It has been a wonderful experience (but a lot of work and money because the school will not touch one cent of the taxpayers money. The school was recently profiled in Bloomberg).

      I support charter schools that do a FAR better job in tailoring a student’s needs than the tenured teachers who can’t be fired and hurt the students and the reputations of the committed teachers. The documentary, Waiting on Superman points out the failure to thrive system that is in place. The director is a liberal, who did a great job exposing the hard truths.

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