Soda Tax Goes Federal

Posted May 31, 2009, at 6:51 p.m.

Maine has twice rejected taxes on soda and other sweetened drinks popular with children and adolescents. Now it looks as if the federal government may try the same thing, hopefully with better results.

Ten years ago, the short-lived snack tax was levied to relieve a budget deficit. Last year, a people’s veto killed a tax on soft drinks, along with beer and wine, that was intended to help fund Maine’s Dirigo Health Program, clearly tying soda consumption to health care.

The chief purpose of the federal soda tax that seems to be taking shape is to help curb the obesity epidemic that afflicts the whole country and especially Maine, where one-fifth are obese and 59 percent are either obese or overweight, according to the state’s health officer, Dr. Dora Anne Mills. The possible federal proposal would also raise money to help pay for health care reform.

But if you think Maine’s soda-tax disputes were heated, just wait for a national furor pitting nutritionists and health-care specialists against the beverage and food service industries.

Maine’s Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a member of the Finance Committee, has come out strongly against a soda tax as one of many proposals for funding health care reform. She said in a statement that it would be “regressive and would set a bad precedent.” She added that it had failed to gar-ner support among committee members.

Still, the idea has gotten a boost from Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, New York City’s health commissioner and President Obama’s pick to head the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has said that the way to stop the obesity epidemic is to “make healthy cheaper and make lousy food relatively more expensive, particularly sugar-sweetened drinks such as sodas.

In April, he and Dr. Kelly D. Brownell of Yale called for “hefty” taxes on sodas and sports drinks containing sugar in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. They started out by quoting Adam Smith, the father of modern economics as writing in 1776: “Sugar, rum and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are objects of almost universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation.”

They wrote that sodas and sports and energy drinks “may be the single largest driver of the obesity epidemic.” They went on to quote studies showing that children drank more sodas than milk by the mid 1990s and that the per capita intake of calories from sugar-sweetened drinks has increased nearly 30 percent since then.

As with tobacco, the authors found, soft drink consumption drops if the price goes up.

They agreed that a soda tax could be regressive, hitting the poor disproportionately but they argued that the poor are harmed the most by diet-related diseases and would benefit the most from reduced consumption.

It sounds as if the Maine idea of using a soda tax to help pay for health care was right after all.

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