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Thursday, January 12th 2012

A Penny For Your Sugar Water

A group of public health researchers out of UCSF and Columbia have a piece in the pending edition of Health Affairs. In it they argue that 1c per ounce tax on sugar sweetened drinks would,

prevent 2.4 million diabetes person-years, 95,000 coronary heart events, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 premature deaths, while avoiding more than $17 billion in medical costs

over the next ten years. If you can’t access the full study on Health Affairs behind the firewall then here’s a write up on a Los Angeles Times blog.

First and foremost I have a major problem with taxation to influence behavior. I don’t even like the federal tax on cigarettes. I understand the public health issues involved in second hand smoke. Even factoring those I think something like the tobacco tax, which is beyond discredit in terms of its success, is beyond the purview of the government.

And the junk food tax is likely to be something less effective than the tax on cigarettes and targets a behavior with far few social costs; even admitting that the bill for diseases associated with obesity is footed in part by society in general it is a far cry from say the public health effects of second hand smoke.

Plenty of previous data finds the conclusions of the Health Affairs paper optimistic.

[A] trio of economists analyzed 16 years of U.S. household health data to study the feasibility of using a soft-drink tax to help Americans lose weight. In a 2008 paper, the researchers calculated that a 1-percentage-point increase in the tax would reduce the average body mass index by just 0.003 units.

In other words, an overweight person with a BMI of 27 would end up with a BMI of 26.997 — still well short of the 20-25 range considered healthy.

Even a soft-drink tax increase of 20 percentage points wouldn’t help much, because soda accounts for only 7% of calories in the American diet.

I am highly dubious rising the cost of a can of soda 12c or a six pack by less than a dollar is liable to significantly discourage use.

Tobacco taxes are also much higher than anything likely to be adopted for food and beverages. Slapping a 10% tax on a $1.50-bottle of Coke would raise the price a mere 15 cents — not enough to persuade most shoppers to drink Diet Coke instead. Many calorie-laden foods are simply too cheap to be priced out of the market by any but the most draconian of taxes.

As well, such a tax would be highly regressive since sweetened drink use is inversely proportional to socioeconomic status (myself excluded of course; I go through 4-5 sodas a day).

In the end though, like I said, I just don’t like the idea of government dictating what we should and shouldn’t be eating and drinking. Their role in such, with agricultural subsidies and regulations of commercial foodstuff is already too big. The idea of a tax to specifically influence or diet is too much to take.