Modest additional taxes on sweetened soft drinks don’t do much to curb consumption or child obesity, according to a study released today. But more significant levies targeting soda might have more impact.
The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, could find no significant connection between soda consumption or weight gain among children and special taxes on soda. The taxes in the study averaged 3.5 percent, and none were larger than 7 percent.“If the goal is to noticeably reduce soda consumption among children, then it would have to be a very substantial tax” said Roland Sturm, the study’s lead author and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “A small sales tax on soda does not appear to lead to a noticeable drop in consumption, led alone reduction in obesity.”
New soda taxes have been proposed in California and elsewhere. Democrats in Congress considered the idea as a way to finance an expansion of health insurance for the poor but dropped the proposal in the face of opposition from the beverage industry.
In California, Senate Bill 1210 would slap a tax of 1 cent for every added teaspoon of sugar in sweetened drinks. A 12-ounce can of soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar. A ten-cent tax on that can would be as much as 25 percent, even at a discount grocery store.
In the study, researchers estimated the potential effect of taxes by looking at the differences in existing sales taxes among the states and then comparing those levels to information about weight and soda consumption among 7,300 children.
Although children at higher risk for obesity — those who were heavier, children from low-income families, African-American children and those who watched a lot of television — drank more soda than children in general, they also were among those whose soda-drinking habits were most sensitive to higher taxes. The impact was greatest for children from these groups who could buy soda at school.
The most effective kind of soda tax, the researchers said, would be an excise tax that would increase the price of soda on the grocery store shelf. Sales taxes collected at the cash register have less effect because consumers don’t connect the tax to the particular product.
An 18 percent soda tax proposed and then dropped from New York’s Executive Budget last year could help prevent excessive weight gain between third and fifth grades by 20 percent, the researchers said.