As Americans fret over the latest national health scare, the most dangerous health threat to America grows unchecked. It’s not cancer or cigarettes or a deadly virus; it’s obesity, the medical costs of which now greatly outpace those of smoking. Obesity is hemorrhaging Medicare and Medicaid funds at an astounding rate, and obesity-related illnesses are killing millions every year. This is more than a health problem – it’s a huge economic problem that needs to be dealt with.
Depending on what voters choose (unless they choose no tax), the initiative could add either 1 cent per ounce or 2 cents per ounce to the price of soda. The idea is to hit people in their wallets in order to deter them from buying soda. Would this really have an effect? Economists say yes. Michael Lovenheim of Cornell University discussed recently with the San Francisco Chronicle that a 20-percent price increase of a can of soda because of a penny-per-ounce soda tax would decrease household caloric intake by five percent – about 4,779 calories or 16 cans of Coca-Cola per month.
Deterring consumption is great, but it’s only part of the story. In a laudable display of government transparency, all the revenue generated from the tax would be earmarked to fund physical education programs and better nutrition in schools, where about one out of three children is overweight or obese. Thus, the tax will fight obesity whether soda consumption is reduced or not. On the one hand, consumption will be reduced (this effect is a near certainty, thank you Econ 1) and kids will lose weight. On the other hand, consumption may not decrease by much, but the tax revenue will be used to fight obesity.
Soda companies argue that the connection between sugary drink consumption and obesity is tenuous at best. They cite research that shows no connection between soda and obesity, but much of this research is funded by soda companies themselves. In fact, beverage industry-funded studies are four to eight times more likely to show a finding favorable to the industry than independently-funded studies, according to a Plos Medicine study.
Non-industry-funded studies, however, show that people who consume at least one can of soda per day have a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and a 20 percent greater risk of having a heart attack. These observational studies don’t control for lifestyle choices, so take them with a grain of salt – or rather 16 teaspoons of sugar – but know that even when researchers take away soda from a randomized group of kids, those kids lose weight.
But the debate over the soda tax, as with most other so-called “sin taxes,” doesn’t really come down to whether soda is bad for you. It comes down to whether ordinary people should take money out of their pockets to prevent kids from becoming fat.
The problem with this outlook is that taxpayers are already footing the bill for obesity. California’s government spends nearly 25 cents of every tax dollar on health care, and obesity accounts for 9.1 percent of all medical spending. If taxpayers should care deeply about anything, they should care about the health of fellow citizens – not out of compassion, but of rational self-interest. Just think: If California residents lost an average of 5 percent of their body weight, California would save nearly $82 billion and prevent about 800,000 cases of diabetes.
A soda tax is no silver bullet – no health policy is – but it’s a step in the right direction. San Francisco and Berkeley have a chance to be leaders in state and national public health. They have a unique opportunity to improve nutrition in schools and combat America’s biggest health problem. If anything’s a fight worth fighting, this is it.
Contact Cory Herro at firstname.lastname@example.org.