Arguments For, and Against, a Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Oct 31, 2012, 11:59 AM

Over the past few years, many cities and states have considered taxing sodas and other sugary beverages. At the American Public Health Association meeting, Judy Jou, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, discussed a study in which she and her colleagues interviewed stakeholders about their views on a sugary beverage tax. The study was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its national Healthy Eating Research program.

Most of the eleven interviews were with public health advocates and policy-makers. These stakeholders indicated that the main arguments in favor of the tax revolve around health:

  • Sugary beverages contain large amounts of sugar and/or calories.
  • Sugary beverages are a major contributor to obesity and related health conditions, especially for children.
  • The revenue generated by a sugary beverage tax can be used to fund community health programs.

Some stakeholders said that visual representations of the sugar in these beverages were effective at communicating the first point. Stakeholders learned messaging ideas through personal networking, published documents, other sugary beverage tax efforts and—less frequently—testing from focus groups or surveys.

The most common messages used against sugary beverage taxes included:

  • Government is acting as a “nanny state” and is restricting personal choice.
  • These taxes would have a negative economic impact on businesses and workers.
  • Soda and other sugary beverages are unfairly targeted and are not the only cause of obesity.

Citizens in two California cities, Richmond and El Monte, will vote on sugary beverage taxes on Election Day next Tuesday. In both cities, the campaigns to defeat the taxes have much more funding than the campaigns to pass them. One big challenge identified by the stakeholders Jou and her team interviewed was the vast resources the beverage companies have to fight these tax efforts.

>>The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the effort to pass a sugary beverage tax in El Monte.

>>Learn more about how pricing strategies— both incentives and disincentives—can promote the purchase of healthier foods.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.