National Consumers League

Making the case for a soda tax

Last week the Center for the Science in the Public Interest hosted the National Soda Summit in Washington, DC. Strange name for a conference, I know.  Without further explanation, one might conclude from the title that his was a Coca-Cola extravaganza. Au contraire. CSPI, which was founded in by Dr. Mike Jacobson in 1971, gets the credit for getting Americans, for the first time, to question what’s in their food, ask how nutritional that food is, and ask why our food choices make us unhealthy.

Sweetened drinks such as soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffees and tea, add large numbers of calories to the diets of children and adults. They are associated with chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Undoing the damage that’s caused by unhealthy foods – and the ubiquity of unhealthy drinks available to us every day –is a long slow process. Walk into a 7-11 sometime and count the number of empty calorie options that add massive amounts of calories to our diet every year.

On the tables at the conference were two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew and Pepsi and Coke and energy drinks– with notes on how much sugar each contained – try 64 teaspoons in the Mountain Due and 72 in the Pepsi. Bags of domino sugar were mounted on one table to demonstrate the absurd amounts of empty calories in these drinks. That’s a little bit deceptive because the sweetener in these drinks isn’t sugar but high fructose corn syrup. However, the calories are the same.

NCL supports a tax on sweetened drinks, with proceeds devoted to school nutritional education programs.  The latest research from the Robert Wood Johnson is that a calorie –based tax on drinks would reduce consumption of beverage calories. Based on sales data from supermarkets in New York, a .04 cent per calorie tax on sugar sweetened beverages would reduce the consumption of beverage calories by 9.3 percent. Research shows that a variety of pricing strategies can create incentives for healthier choices. Interestingly, a 20 percent increase in the cost of sweetened beverages, is estimated to reduce consumption by 24 percent. Like cigarettes, soda is price sensitive; raising the price of these empty calorie drinks may be just what we need to lower consumption levels.