New Study Undermines Argument for Taxing Sugary Drinks

Researchers at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine have dealt another blow to the case for taxing sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB).

The new study, published earlier this month in Current Nutrition Reports, found that “the evidence supporting [a] relationship between SSB consumption and child body mass index (BMI) is consistently small and lacks causality.” The authors went on to conclude that “taxation has no clear relationship to SSB purchasing.”

These findings directly contradict the claims of those pushing for high SSB taxes in states and localities around the country.

While making sugary drinks more expensive for consumers might seem like an effective approach to combating obesity, this new study is far from the first to point out serious flaws in SSB taxes.

Studies have generally found that the impact of SSB taxes on the consumption of sugary drinks and obesity is small. A study in 2010 found that “we should expect only modest changes in population weight through soft drink consumption responses to small tax increases.”

One problem with SSB taxes is that demand for sugary beverages is very inelastic, meaning that higher prices are unlikely to cause significant drops in consumption. Additionally, deterring consumers from buying sugary drinks often causes them to shift toward unhealthy substitutes that aren’t subject to the tax, resulting in little net effect on health.

SSB taxes also have the unintended side-effect of deepening poverty and making it more difficult for low-income people to adopt healthy eating habits. Because low-income Americans tend to be less mobile and more likely than other income groups to consume sugary drinks, these taxes tend to be regressive in nature, falling most heavily on those least able to pay. Reducing their after-tax income makes it harder for low-income families to escape poverty and afford healthier food. As a result, SSB taxes undermine one of their primary objectives.

Furthermore, myopically focusing on sugary beverages simply won’t solve America’s health challenges. The obesity problem in the United States is much bigger than just sugary drinks, which account for only about 7 percent of average calorie intake among adults and children. A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that “…SSB consumption has been declining since the mid-1990s. During this period the prevalence of obesity has been increasing, suggesting that reducing general caloric intake is likely more important than reducing SSB consumption alone.”

A more effective way to address America’s obesity rate and promote healthy eating would be to educate people on the importance of a balanced diet and to introduce healthy alternatives in areas where none are currently available. An estimated 2.3 million American families do not own a car and live more than a mile away from a grocery store. For these families, the local convenience store or fast food restaurant may be their primary source of food.

The well-meaning advocates of SSB taxes often ignore the many unintended consequences these taxes cause, many of which either cancel their beneficial effects or actually cause harm. The recent study in Current Nutrition Reports adds to a growing body of evidence that these taxes are ineffective policy tools and distract from promising strategies that would make a difference in battling the obesity epidemic.

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