TAXING ONE SOURCE OF CALORIES IN THE DIET DOES NOT MEAN WE WILL CONSUME FEWER CALORIES
I’m in favor anything that might help Americans reduce their caloric intake in order to curb obesity, but I don’t believe taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is the way to go. Economists use mathematical equations to “predict” the potential weight loss benefits of a penny per ounce soda tax, but they can’t factor in all the complex variables that shape human eating behavior.
People adjust to price changes all the time. Think about the last time the price for your favorite English muffins went up or a tank of gas. Initially, you may have bought the store-brand muffins or combined errands into one trip to save gas, but as you grew accustomed to seeing the new price, you probably drifted back to your favorite brands and old driving habits. No doubt you were making adjustments somewhere else in your budget by then. Our ability to continually reshuffle our priorities to pay for what we need, and what we want, gets plenty of practice since the cost of everything we buy only changes in one direction — and that’s up!
Price Isn’t the Only Factor in Food Choice
Another reason why a soda tax won’t change our buying habits is because a wide range of prices for sugar-sweetened, unsweetened and low-calorie or diet drinks is already available on the shelf. If you can’t afford the premium brand, you can always pay less for something else. But price isn’t the only, or even the main, factor that governs our selection.
I walked past 20 feet of refrigerated drinks in a convenience store recently and spent more than 5 minutes evaluating my options. I ended up choosing a brand of iced tea in a flavor I really like. I could have tried something similar that was less expensive, but I went with what I knew would satisfy my thirst and taste preferences. Taking a chance on an unfamiliar product to save a few cents wasn’t worth it to me if it meant I might not enjoy it as much. Serving size and type of container were two of the other factors I considered besides price.
All Calories Contribute Equally to Weight Gain
But some economists believe that adding a 20 cent tax to the price of a 20 ounce sweetened drink will make us switch to an untaxed and unsweetened one. The folly in this plan is that it ignores the fact we could switch from a taxed orange soda to an untaxed orange juice, which won’t reduce our caloric intake one bit since they have the same caloric value per ounce. We could also go from a brand name drink to a generic one that costs less, even with the tax, but it, too, will have the same number of calories as our original choice. How is that going to reduce obesity?
Consuming fewer total calories is the best way to lose weight, and it doesn’t matter where those calories come from. Taxing one source of calories as a means to deal with the problem is misguided. It makes far more sense to focus our efforts on teaching people how to balance the calories from all of the foods and beverages they choose with enough physical activity so they can achieve and maintain a healthy weight. And if we did that, the savings we would realize in healthcare costs could go a long way towards paying for the next hike in gasoline prices!
Disclosure: I am a consultant to The Coca-Cola Company and the Calorie Control Council, but the opinions expressed here are strictly my own.