Should Progressives Support Soda Taxes?

Cities from Chicago to Philadelphia have experimented with a tax on sweetened beverages. Tom Philpott, Max B. Sawicky and Melina Packer debate the merits.

In These Times Writers December 20, 2017

Kick­ing our Coke Habit

By Tom Philpott

Consumption taxes are regressive—that is, they fall much harder on the poor than they do the rich, because the poor spend a larger proportion of their incomes just to get by.

Coca-Cola is arti­fi­cial­ly black­ened water goosed with high-fruc­tose corn syrup: in short, a lav­ish­ly mar­ket­ed jolt of liq­uid sweet­en­er, like­ly as habit-form­ing and health-ruin­ing as a Marl­boro. So why not slap a spe­cial tax on it and oth­er sug­ary drinks, in hopes of reduc­ing consumption?

A host of U.S. cities have tak­en the plunge. Berke­ley, Calif., rolled out a pen­ny-per-ounce levy on dis­trib­u­tors of sweet­en­er-heavy drinks in 2015. Since then, Oak­land, Calif.; San Fran­cis­co; Albany, Calif.; Philadel­phia; Boul­der, Colo.; and Seat­tle have fol­lowed with sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives. Cook Coun­ty, Ill., which con­tains Chica­go, dab­bled in a soda tax, pass­ing one in Novem­ber 2016 only to dis­man­tle it under pres­sure from the bev­er­age industry.

The obvi­ous objec­tion — beyond lost prof­its for Big Soda — is fair­ness. Con­sump­tion tax­es are regres­sive — that is, they fall much hard­er on the poor than they do the rich, because the poor spend a larg­er pro­por­tion of their incomes just to get by. And soda tax­es are par­tic­u­lar­ly laser-focused on the low end of the income scale because, as research sug­gests, the less mon­ey you make and the less edu­ca­tion you’ve attained, the more soda you consume.

But soda’s dossier as a pub­lic health men­ace is gain­ing weight, so to speak. A long line of pop­u­la­tion stud­ies con­vinc­ing­ly links soda con­sump­tion with Type 2 dia­betes, an increas­ing­ly com­mon mal­a­dy that can trig­ger every­thing from kid­ney dam­age to poor vision. And like soda con­sump­tion, Type 2 dia­betes rates are inverse­ly cor­re­lat­ed to income.

And soda may be a key trig­ger. In a block­buster 2016 study, Swedish researchers tracked the dietary habits and health out­comes of more than 2,800 adults over sev­er­al years, adjust­ing their results for a range of fac­tors like age, gen­der, fam­i­ly his­to­ry of dia­betes and caloric intake. They found that peo­ple who quaff around a soda per day are twice as like­ly to devel­op Type 2 dia­betes as those who abstain. And peo­ple who drink just under three sodas per day had a 10 times high­er risk of devel­op­ing Type 2 diabetes.

As a result of this and oth­er ill effects, such as increased risks of obe­si­ty and tooth decay, the World Health Organization’s con­di­tion­al rec­om­men­da­tion is that adults and kids lim­it added sug­ar intake to 5 per­cent of dai­ly calo­ries — about 25 grams of sug­ar. That leaves no room for a dai­ly 12-ounce Coke, which deliv­ers 39 grams.

So, while soda tax­es hit low-income peo­ple hard­er in the pock­et­book, they might also dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly boost their health — that is, if they actu­al­ly reduce con­sump­tion. The indus­try, appar­ent­ly, thinks they do. In 2016, Coca-Cola Co., Pep­si­Co and their trade group, the Amer­i­can Bev­er­age Asso­ci­a­tion, spent a com­bined $37.7 mil­lion in failed efforts to beat tax ini­tia­tives in three Cal­i­for­nia cities and Boulder.

Research, while still pret­ty spot­ty because soda tax­es are new, is bear­ing this out. A 2017 paper in the peer-reviewed Jour­nal of Nutri­tion looked at Mex­i­co, which imple­ment­ed a soda tax in 2014. It found that soda pur­chas­es dropped 6.3 per­cent in the year after the tax’s debut, with an even larg­er reduc­tion among low­er-income house­holds, res­i­dents liv­ing in urban areas and house­holds with chil­dren.” Bot­tled water sales, mean­while, jumped 16.2 percent.

A sim­i­lar study in Berke­ley also deliv­ered bit­ter news to Big Soda. In the first four months after imple­men­ta­tion, soda sales plunged 21 per­cent in low-income Berke­ley neigh­bor­hoods while increas­ing 4 per­cent in com­pa­ra­ble areas of near­by Oak­land and San Fran­cis­co, which then had no such tax. Water con­sump­tion, mean­while, jumped 63 percent.

Pre­lim­i­nary results in Philadel­phia, where a 1.5‑cents-per-ounce tax took effect Jan. 1, 2017, look even more robust: In the first half of the year, soda sales plunged 57 per­cent by vol­ume — with­out affect­ing over­all busi­ness at chain stores, accord­ing to pre­lim­i­nary results from a team of researchers from Har­vard, Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and Johns Hop­kins. Of course, none of these stud­ies tell us whether the drops in con­sump­tion are per­ma­nent or even real — res­i­dents may be stream­ing across town bor­ders to snag untaxed drinks. But the ini­tial research, and the soda industry’s fierce oppo­si­tion, hint at success.

What about eco­nom­ic jus­tice? If the stud­ies are cor­rect, these tax­es are suc­cess­ful­ly forc­ing low-income soda fanciers to either for­go a crea­ture com­fort or pay extra for it. One way to make up for that squeeze would be to chan­nel the pro­ceeds into ini­tia­tives that ben­e­fit the poor.

San Fran­cis­co, Oak­land and Berke­ley have vowed to use the funds to sup­port health-relat­ed ini­tia­tives, while Philadel­phia has ear­marked its soda tax pro­ceeds for pre‑K pro­grams, com­mu­ni­ty schools and improve­ments to the city’s parks, libraries and recre­ation centers.

Ulti­mate­ly, these tax­es can only be judged a suc­cess for low-income Amer­i­cans if they help end the scourge of dia­betes and oth­er sug­ar-relat­ed mal­adies. We’re a long way from know­ing whether they do, but the effort seems worth the gamble. 

There’s No Sug­ar-Coat­ing a Regres­sive Tax

By Max B. Sawicky

Tom lays out the issues well, but I see some gaps.

I am hap­py to accept the research Tom cites: that exces­sive con­sump­tion of high-sug­ar drinks has neg­a­tive health effects, and a tax dis­cour­ages such con­sump­tion. This doesn’t mean the tax is a good idea.

Tom is right in acknowl­edg­ing that the tax will be regres­sive because, on aver­age, low-income peo­ple spend a high­er pro­por­tion of their earn­ings on sug­ary drinks. He argues that this is bal­anced by the health ben­e­fits they may reap.

But con­sid­er how this plays out in prac­tice. Under a soda tax, con­sumers of high-sug­ar drinks fall into two groups: those who buy less soda and may real­ize some health ben­e­fits, and those who do not.

For the refuseniks, or soda addicts, the tax amounts to a sim­ple penal­ty for being who they are. This, I sub­mit, is an eth­i­cal­ly obnox­ious result, even for a well-mean­ing pol­i­cy. You could say it’s for the greater good, but pro­gres­sives would pre­fer not to rest the bur­den on those least able to bear it.

Tom’s oth­er rem­e­dy is for the pro­ceeds of the tax to be used to aid the poor. On its own terms, this doesn’t quite solve the prob­lem. The penal­ized group may not come out of such an exer­cise whole, since some mem­bers won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly real­ize any per­son­al health benefits.

And remem­ber, we’re talk­ing about munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments. In actu­al­i­ty, not the­o­ry, how like­ly is it that a new rev­enue source would flow to its announced objec­tive? This hope lends too much cred­it to both the com­pe­tence and com­mit­ment of local politi­cians and administrators.

I con­cede that local (and state) gov­ern­ments are under severe fis­cal stress. Giv­en this, most any rev­enue gen­er­a­tor is a good one, and local pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion is dif­fi­cult to imple­ment because a pro­gres­sive munic­i­pal income tax is easy to avoid by moving.

But a soda tax is a micro solu­tion to a macro prob­lem. The pur­veyance of tea­spoon reme­dies is a hall­mark of Clinton/​Obama pub­lic pol­i­cy (with some notable excep­tions), and soda tax­es are essen­tial­ly neolib­er­al­ism at the munic­i­pal lev­el: small-scale solu­tions to large prob­lems rely­ing on unde­pend­able mar­ket mech­a­nisms. Is what­ev­er rev­enue they pro­vide real­ly going to solve the enor­mous dis­in­vest­ment in black and brown communities?

But the real knock on the soda tax is that the con­ver­sa­tion it gen­er­ates — the pol­i­cy oxy­gen it con­sumes — far exceeds its rel­e­vance to the oppres­sion of peo­ple of col­or in local communities.

Soda tax­a­tion is a very mea­ger sub­sti­tute for a seri­ous dis­cus­sion of urban pol­i­cy, or of eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy respons­es to insti­tu­tion­al racism. If our con­cern is rev­enue for local gov­ern­ments, we need to talk about fed­er­al and state aid, financed by broad-based tax­es. If our con­cern is pub­lic health, imag­ine how low-income com­mu­ni­ties would ben­e­fit from an expand­ed net­work of com­mu­ni­ty health clin­ics, as has been pro­posed by Bernie Sanders and James Clyburn. Or con­sid­er the changes in behav­ior — includ­ing con­sump­tion of sug­ar drinks — that fol­low from reduc­tions in inequal­i­ty and increas­es in liv­ing stan­dards. When peo­ple have more mon­ey to spend, health­i­er food becomes more accessible.

There is also a polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion. The lib­er­al inter­est in reg­u­lat­ing legal if unwise per­son­al behav­ior may appeal more to the do-good­er class than to its ben­e­fi­cia­ries, when all the votes are count­ed. Right-wing nar­ra­tives exploit sto­ries about well-off lib­er­als enact­ing laws or reg­u­la­tions con­strain­ing per­son­al behav­ior. A soda tax is a small thing, but it feeds into a larg­er theme on the Right.

I’m writ­ing this from rur­al Vir­ginia, an open-car­ry state. We’re not look­ing at soda tax­es around here. But we just enjoyed a seri­ous elec­toral thump­ing deliv­ered to Trump­ism — real­ly to the Repub­li­can Par­ty — in what most thought was an unlike­ly place.

Say I, it’s time to think big­ger, people.

Reg­u­late Cor­po­ra­tions, Not People

By Meli­na Packer

The Unit­ed States has a long and offen­sive his­to­ry of impos­ing West­ern/Eu­ro-Amer­i­can dietary norms on racial­ized oth­ers” and eco­nom­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized whites. In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, dietary reform­ers cod­i­fied the white mid­dle class’s stan­dard­ized diet — milk, bread, meat, sal­ad — as the one and only sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly proven” healthy diet, dis­miss­ing cen­turies of diverse reli­gious and cul­tur­al food­ways, not to men­tion lac­tose intol­er­ance. Today it is the Mediter­ranean diet that is revered by nutri­tion­ists, implic­it­ly label­ing oth­er culi­nary tra­di­tions as infe­ri­or. In the con­text of this his­to­ry (and its con­tem­po­rary expres­sion), soda tax­es leave a real­ly bad taste in my mouth.

I agree with Tom that drink­ing few­er sodas is prob­a­bly bet­ter for every­body (except, per­haps, cer­tain cor­po­rate exec­u­tives), and I believe in fair, redis­trib­u­tive tax­a­tion to fund strong social safe­ty nets. But as Max empha­sizes, soda tax­es as a rev­enue scheme may be both insult­ing and inef­fec­tive. Giv­en the Unit­ed States’ trou­bled lega­cy of tar­get­ed dietary reforms, as well as the unex­am­ined assump­tions embed­ded in dom­i­nant jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, I am decid­ed­ly against soda taxes.

One faulty assump­tion, so com­mon that it under­lies near­ly all sci­en­tif­ic and jour­nal­is­tic analy­ses, is that peo­ple earn­ing low­er incomes make poor­er” dietary choic­es than those with more mon­ey. This claim remains unsup­port­ed by nation­al sur­veys. All income brack­ets and races/​ethnicities in the U.S. self-report con­sum­ing approx­i­mate­ly the same amounts and types of calo­ries, with mid­dle-income peo­ple fre­quent­ing fast food estab­lish­ments the most. Even if, on aver­age, low­er income peo­ple con­sume more soda, I ques­tion this nar­row fram­ing of sug­ar intake. Sure­ly arti­sanal, small-batch cider or ice cream (or craft soda!) also con­tain excess sug­ar, but no pub­lic cam­paign sur­veils and shames food­ies for their bespoke drinks and desserts.

The idea that somebody’s diet should be policed sim­ply because she has less mon­ey in her wal­let, or more weight on her body, is high­ly prob­lem­at­ic. Soda tax cam­paigns almost always con­flate weight and health, invok­ing the so-called obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic as if heavy nec­es­sar­i­ly means unhealthy. They also tend to con­flate race and class, claim­ing to be espe­cial­ly con­cerned for (read: res­cu­ing) peo­ple of col­or, as if being Black or Brown nec­es­sar­i­ly means need­ing help from above.”

A sec­ond flawed assump­tion is that low­er-income people’s dis­pro­por­tion­ate bur­den of Type 2 dia­betes is caused by soda. Even stud­ies that do find cor­re­la­tions between soda con­sump­tion and Type 2 dia­betes are fram­ing the prob­lem” (and, in turn, the solu­tion”) such that all oth­er poten­tial caus­es (and solu­tions) are cropped out.

I do not dis­pute the fact that poor­er peo­ple tend to have worse health out­comes. What I do take issue with is the myopic focus on indi­vid­ual diets rather than struc­tur­al pre­con­di­tions. Mount­ing evi­dence in the sci­ence of envi­ron­men­tal epi­ge­net­ics demon­strates that expo­sure to trau­ma — be it famines, tox­ins or dis­crim­i­na­tions — pro­duces harm­ful, inher­i­ta­ble health effects. Endocrine-dis­rupt­ing chem­i­cals in par­tic­u­lar (e.g., BPA in plas­tics — do we real­ly want to cel­e­brate more bot­tled water pur­chas­es?) detri­men­tal­ly dis­tort the body’s meta­bol­ic process­es, result­ing in such dis­eases as — you guessed it — Type 2 dia­betes. Chron­ic stress and irreg­u­lar cir­ca­di­an rhythms are also increas­ing­ly under­stood to wreak hav­oc on our endocrine sys­tems, caus­ing major meta­bol­ic dys­func­tion. Since peo­ple earn­ing low­er incomes in this coun­try tend also 1) to be seg­re­gat­ed into high­ly tox­ic neigh­bor­hoods, whether beside a coal mine, a chem­i­cal refin­ery or a con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tion, and 2) to have pre­car­i­ous employ­ment that pro­duces chron­ic stress and forces irreg­u­lar sleep, then low­er-income pop­u­la­tions’ high­er inci­dence of Type 2 dia­betes may have much more to do with their dis­pro­por­tion­ate expo­sure to tox­ins and job inse­cu­ri­ty, rather than with the small, well-deserved plea­sure a sip of sweet soda might provide.

Stig­ma­tiz­ing and tax­ing peo­ple for drink­ing soda both dis­tracts from the (far worse) indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion of tox­ic expo­sures and alien­ates poten­tial allies in the para­mount bat­tle against the real threat: cor­po­rate pow­er. (After all, if every­one sim­ply switch­es from Coke to Dasani, Coca-Cola Co. still wins, and peo­ple and the plan­et still lose.) We can­not spare our pre­cious time and resources on soda tax­es — of all things! — when liv­ing wages, afford­able health­care, and safe and clean work­places, homes and neigh­bor­hoods are far more urgent con­cerns. Pub­lic health advo­cates should refo­cus their ener­gies on stronger cor­po­rate reg­u­la­tions, reliev­ing the down­ward pres­sure on wages, pro­hibit­ing off­shore tax havens and pre­vent­ing chem­i­cal intox­i­ca­tion of our envi­ron­ments, among oth­er issues.

Pro­mot­ing pub­lic health means sup­port­ing all people’s right to pre­pare plea­sur­able meals on their own terms, which requires rein­ing in the cor­po­ra­tions that are cor­rupt­ing our gov­ern­ment, poi­son­ing our plan­et and quite seri­ous­ly threat­en­ing our lives.

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