Debate Club

Sugar Taxes Are Unfair and Unhealthy

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If the regulatory discussion about sugar is going to be based on science, rather than science fiction, it needs to move beyond kicking the soda can.

Conventional wisdom says draconian regulation--specifically, a high tax--on sugary drinks and snacks reduces unhealthy consumption, and thereby improves public health. There are many reasons, however, why high sugar taxes are at best unsuccessful, and at worst economically and socially harmful.

Research finds that higher prices don't reduce soda consumption, for example. No scientific studies demonstrate a difference either in aggregate soda consumption or in child and adolescent Body Mass Index between the two thirds of states with soda taxes and those without such taxes.

[See the U.S. News rankings for the Best Diets.]

The study that did find taxes might lead to a moderate reduction in soda consumption also found this had no effect on adolescent obesity, as the reduction was completely offset by increases in consumption of other calorific drinks.

Economic research finds sugar taxes are a futile instrument in influencing the behavior and habits of the overweight and the obese. Why do sugar taxes fail? Those consumers who strongly prefer unhealthy foods continue to eat and drink according to their individual preferences until such time as it becomes prohibitively expensive to do so.

Demand for food is largely insensitive to price. A 10 percent increase in price reduces consumption by less than 1 percent. Applied to soda, this means that to reduce consumption by 10 percent, the tax rate on sugary drinks would need to be 100 percent!

A sugar tax also has undesirable social and economic consequences. This tax is economically regressive, as a disproportionate share of the tax is paid by low earners, who pay a higher proportion of their incomes in sales tax and also consume a disproportionate share of sugary snacks and drinks.

[10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know]

Such taxes also have perverse, unintended consequences. Taxes on sugary snacks lead many consumers to replace the taxed food with equally unhealthy foods. Poorer consumers react to higher food prices not by changing their diets but by consuming even fewer healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and eating more processed foods. For instance, taxes levied specifically on sugar content increase saturated fat consumption.

Sugar taxes have failed where they've been tried, and are unfair and unhealthy. Given that there's no compelling evidence they'll improve public health, we can't justify using the tax code to shape the sweetness of our dietary choices.

Patrick Basham

About Patrick Basham Co-author of 'Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade'


Other Arguments

65 Pts
Consumers Need to Be Empowered, Not Made Into Victims

No – Consumers Need to Be Empowered, Not Made Into Victims

Keith T. Ayoob Director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

55 Pts
Taxing Sugar Will Do More Harm Than Good

No – Taxing Sugar Will Do More Harm Than Good

Art Carden Assistant Professor of Economics at Rhodes College.

4 Pts
Sugar Regulation Would Help Improve the American Diet

Yes – Sugar Regulation Would Help Improve the American Diet

Kristina Lewis Doctor and Researcher at the Obesity Prevention Program at Harvard Medical School

-37 Pts
Sugars Have a Reasonable Place in Healthful Diets

Yes – Sugars Have a Reasonable Place in Healthful Diets

Marion Nestle Co-author of 'Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics'

-38 Pts
Time to Tax Sugary Drinks

Yes – Time to Tax Sugary Drinks

Michael Jacobson Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

-40 Pts
Sugar Saturates Our Environment

Yes – Sugar Saturates Our Environment

Laura Schmidt Professor of Health Policy at the University of California-San Francisco

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