Sugary soda tax idea should be flushed down the drain

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Media darling and Duke University Global Health Initiative Professor Eric Finkelstein is back in the news with the release of a report in The Archives of Internal Medicine in which he and three colleagues present economic models in support of taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Their report, entitled the “Impact of Targeted Beverage Taxes on Higher- and Lower-Income Households,” suggests that the introduction of special taxes on SSBs is a reasonable and effective means to combat the rising obesity epidemic. The study calls for the revenue raised by these proposed taxes to go to public campaigns against obesity.

The authors modestly elect not to say whether such public health campaigns might be well-advised to gainfully employ them. They do concede that the taxes they propose would have limited effect on the actions of wealthier people. Yet, even as they affirmatively state their faith in taxes on SSBs, they offer no present-day empirical evidence for their claim that such a tax would be beneficial for lower and middle-income folk.

ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan comments that “while obesity is a tremendously serious public health issue which demands real answers, this is a simplistic solution that won’t work. Obesity is a result of people consuming too many calories from all sources, not just sugary sodas. This idea doesn’t at all address the possibility that people will just switch to other high-calorie drinks like orange juice. And you notice that they never advise that people drink diet sodas as alternatives.”

ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom facetiously remarks that this latter failure is because diet sodas “have chemicals. And we all know those are bad for you.”

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross says that the report’s authors “create a web of modeling data — although ‘guesstimates’ would be a better word — asserting a variety of outcomes likely to accrue thanks to a 20 percent or 40 percent tax on SSBs. They assure us that this tax would not be regressive, that it wouldn’t hit the poor hardest, but like most of their assumptions, this one is susceptible to several confounders that make it suspect.”