The impulse among America’s food police to tax soft drinks is an old one— Kelly “Twinkie tax” Brownell pushed the idea as early as 1994 — but it has the nine lives of a cat. Despite multiple defeats in Democratic-leaning districts last year and in the past, the soda tax looks like it will be resurrected in Hawaii and Vermont (and possibly more states).
Hawaii’s governor will call for a $1.28-per-gallon tax on sodas. In 2011, he had attempted to pass a soda tax under the Orwellian title “Sugary Beverage Healthy Hawaii Fee,” but the state legislature saw through the obfuscating rhetoric and defeated it. Nevertheless, it’s back from the dead.
In Vermont, meanwhile, a group of activists looking for a way to fund healthcare reform (haven’t we heard this story before?) are trying to push a soda tax in the Green Mountain State. However, Vermont’s governor isn’t sure that the tax is the right idea. He noted in a recent public forum: “One of the challenges [of the soda tax] is it’s a very regressive tax, it puts a tax on those who can least afford it to pay the most.” He’s on to something: These exercises in social engineering take money out of the hands of working people who enjoy sodas with no regard for their ability to pay.
Even worse, there’s considerable evidence that these zombified taxes won’t affect obesity either. Researchers from the U.K. found that a 10 percent soda tax would reduce daily calories consumed by three calories — less than one tenth of one percent of the stored energy in a pound of body fat. Other estimates have found that people would reduce their calorie intake by nine calories per day. That’s not going to make any difference on obesity rates.
Given that there’s no evidence that soda or other food and beverage taxes will correct the problem they’re intended to help and that the poor will bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden, it shouldn’t be surprising that soda taxes are massively unpopular.