Briefly liveblogging today's webinar on soda taxes and childhood obesity, from the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.
David Ludwig's presentation, reviewing the scientific literature, is convincing that consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages increases body weight and risk of obesity for children. For my own purposes, I take this conclusion as fact and spend most of my mental energy engaging the interesting policy questions.
Kelly Brownell reviewed objections that have been raised to soda taxes. First, the "Nanny State" objection -- the idea that the government shouldn't be telling people what to eat. Brownell's response is that the government already does tell us what to eat, through Dietary Guidelines and subsidies. I think that response won't carry the day, with politicians or the public. Dietary guidance, which summarizes the complex scientific literature but respectfully leaves concrete decisions to families, is different from a soda tax. Similarly, agricultural subsidies will be seen as very different in motivation and impact from a tax designed to encourage healthy beverage consumption.
Second, the argument that soda tax will be regressive, hurting poor families disproportionately. Brownell's response includes the observation that low-income people have higher rates of disease, so the benefits of a soda tax are progressive. Also, if poor people shift to water, Brownell says, they will actually save money. Again, I think soda tax proponents have a tin ear for how poorly such arguments will play with potential allies, including advocates for low-income people and otherwise sympathetic legislators.
Overall, proponents of a soda tax need to reach beyond the public health framework -- where childhood obesity is an illness that needs a medically prescribed remedy -- and reach out to economists, politicians, and others who are better prepared to engage likely public reactions to a proposed excise tax as a public health tool. Above all, any tone of eagerness to tax is politically deadly. It would be much wiser to adopt the tone that "nobody likes taxes, but, just as in our own families, hard choices must sometimes be made, and this one may help our children stay healthy." Several webinar speakers generally sounded more eager to tax.
Michael Jacobson provided a helpfully skeptical summary of the political situation. Several current bills at federal level do not include a soda tax. Grassley and Baucus oppose a soda tax. Some tax-writing committee staffs have given a little attention to soda taxes as a possible revenue source, but that is not much to go on. The most likely scenario for imposition is during a federal or state fiscal crunch, as a convenient revenue source, along with alcohol taxes. That setting wouldn't bode well for building public support for the corresponding public health agenda.
Additional information sources include an anti-tax group, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation effort on childhood obesity, a recent Michael Jacobson editorial, and a Center for Science in the Public Interest website.