More on soda taxes

A few days ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) came out with report, suggesting the use of food taxes and subsidies to encourage healthy eating.  They were particularly in favor of soda taxes.  Soda taxes seems to be picking up steam in the U.S..  After passage in Berkeley, they will now be on the ballot in several locales in coming weeks.  

I've written so much on these topics, it's hard to know what more to say.  So, I thought I'd just, for the record, tell you what I had to say on a recent Food Sommelier podcast when the host asked me about this topic (and revealed her support for soda taxes, which came about in part because she said she felt guilty for having worked for PepsiCo earlier in her career).  

I'm in episode 38 and the discussion on soda taxes starts at about the 20 minute mark.  Here is my lightly edited discussion on the issue. 

“I’m not a fan of soda taxes for a whole host of reasons . . . but let me first say, though, that it’s really not that big a deal.  And that’s probably one of the reasons I’m against it . . .  As much as I’ve written about it, you’d think I’d get my feathers ruffled a lot [over things like the Philadelphia soda tax], but I don’t have a dog in the fight really one way or the other.  It’s not a big deal in the sense that, number 1, it’s just not going to have much of an effect on obesity rates if you look at the best available research.  We are talking about taxes that will have very, very small effects on people’s weight, and there a lot of reasons for that.  

There are substitutes for sugar sweetened beverages.  People can switch to juices or even non-beverage alternatives that may have calories in them.  I’ve seen a number of studies that suggest that.  Just because we put a tax on something doesn’t mean people are not going to consume calories; they might instead switch to something else equally caloric.  . . . 

We have these intuitions . . . and little thumb rules like for every 3,500 kcal we cut out, we lose a pound.  The reality is that relationship is not linear at all.  It’s nonlinear . . .  When we’re thinking in a linear way, each calorie I cut out will cause a constant reduction in weight, but it doesn’t really happen that way.  There are diminishing returns.  You may lose a little bit initially but then it will really level off.  . . .

When you look at the burden of the tax, and this is really true of almost any food tax, its going to tend to be borne relatively (at least relative to income) more by people in the lower economic strata of society.  The reason for that is that if you look at the share of spending on food, it tends to go down as we make more money.  What that means is that poor people are spending a larger proportion of their income on food. So, anything we do to make food more expensive, that burden or that tax, is going to tend to fall more heavily on lower income populations. . . .

I’ve got a paper actually coming out . . . where we compare very low income to regular income consumers.  What we tended to find there is that is that, especially in the case of subsidizing healthy foods, the richer consumers benefit the most because they’re already, first of all, consuming relatively health foods.  And, because we found . . . that the poor tended to want to stick to their original diets. They were more habit prone, so they didn’t change quite as much either when it was a tax . . . or a subsidy trying to get them to eat something a little healthier.  

I would say lastly, I’m going to bring up this sort of elitism. . . . This sort of paternalism argument.  We feel like we know how other people should be eating.  . . . I think it’s really hard to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, and so for us to take a step back and say ‘you should be doing something different; you should be eating more like me’ presumes that we know what it’s like to have their life and have their kind of income and know all the other sorts of things they’re facing. . . .  I have a problem philosophically with that. . . .

And I do think it’s different than . . . cigarette taxes.  With cigarette taxes there really was this externality – the second hand smoke.  When you’re smoking, that really does have an effect on the people around you.  With the drinking of soda, it’s really less clear there’s that same kind of phenomenon at play.  Most of what’s happening here is some kind of redistribution within our healthcare system because of Medicare and Medicaid.  But, that’s much more complicated than most people realize.  Most of what’s happening here are subsidies flowing from relatively wealthy people to relatively poor people because relatively wealthy people pay more in taxes. . . . It’s not a popular solution but part of the argument is that if people know their health care expenses are going to be taken care of, they’re going to eat in an unhealthy way . . . Economists call that a moral hazard.  The answer for a moral hazard is that people need to have some skin in the game.  We need people to pay a little bit of the costs of their health care.  It doesn’t have to be the same for everybody, and maybe it’s just a small amount for people who don’t have much income, but I think if the concern is that if people are going to behave “irresponsibly”, there needs to be a bit of a price for that in terms of their health care costs.  But, of course, there is a real price for being obese.  That’s something we tend to forget – that there is a lot of social shame associated with being obese, wages can be lower especially for women, and there are all the attendant medical costs, some of which are shielded from the consumer because of our health care system but a lot of those are borne directly.  There is a real cost to being overweight and obese, and people bear a lot of that just through their own daily lives.  

I’m running on here, but one last point that is really important because I hear so many people get this wrong.  What they say is, ‘well our farm policy system subsidizes food and makes sugar cheaper.’  That is absolutely false.  I’m not a fan of farm subsidies, but that particular argument is false for two reasons.  One is that if you look at cane sugar.  Cane sugar has a set of really convoluted policies, but they essentially restrict supply. . . . What [sugar producers via policy] are able to do is keep out foreign competition and keep other producers from growing sugar cane.  . . . World sugar prices are much higher than they would be if we didn’t have our US cane sugar policies.  The other thing is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  Right now roughly 40% of our corn supply goes to ethanol.  Ten years ago, that was mostly going to livestock and food processing. . . .  It’s not exactly a farm policy, but the energy policies we’ve had over the past 10-20 years have dramatically shifted corn production from going to places like HFCS to instead ethanol production and our cars, and as a result has made HFCS more expensive than it would be otherwise.  

Should we tax sugar?  In some ways, we already do, it’s just not very transparent that we’re doing it."