Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Taxes and Public Health

Obesity rates among U.S. children, adolescents and adults have increased dramatically over the past four decades. Today, nearly one-third of all children and adolescents in the country—more than 23 million—are overweight or obese, and are therefore at greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a host of other serious diseases. Rising obesity rates have motivated policy-makers to implement policies that can improve access to affordable, healthy foods and increase opportunities for physical activity in schools and communities across the country.

In the past decade, states and localities also have begun to consider taxing sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)—including sodas, sports drinks, sweetened tea, fruit drinks and punches, and other sweetened beverages—in order to generate revenue, reduce consumption of unhealthy beverages and promote public health.

Research has shown that relatively large increases in taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products are the single most effective policy approach to reducing tobacco use. Additionally, dedicating a portion of the revenues gained from such taxes to comprehensive tobacco control programs has led to further reductions in tobacco use among youth and adults.

Although there are many significant differences between tobacco and SSBs, the tobacco example provides a model for how taxes can be used to promote public health. Emerging studies suggest that small taxes on SSBs are unlikely to affect obesity rates, but they can generate revenue that states can invest in improving public health. In addition, while there is only limited research on the impact of taxes on SSB consumption rates and related weight outcomes, existing research on the impact of prices on food-purchasing behaviors in general suggests that substantive taxes on SSBs could significantly affect consumption patterns and thereby have an impact on overweight and obesity rates. This brief provides an overview of the current research on the health impacts of SSB consumption, how food and beverage prices affect consumption and related weight outcomes, and the potential impact of both large and small SSB taxes.

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