OpinionEndorsements

The problem with soda taxes

NutritionServices and Shopping

When it comes to so-called sin taxes, tobacco is simple. Food and drink are complicated. Cigarettes cause terrible disease and have no positive side effects. Taxes on them clearly reduce smoking and contribute to public health. But healthy eating requires balancing both the quantity of calories and the quality of those calories — does the food also deliver protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals? As a result, efforts to tax junk foods or regulate dietary behavior are almost sure to have logical inconsistencies.

Measure H, a proposed tax on the city of El Monte's ballot, is a typical example. Rather than carefully targeting high-calorie, low-nutrition drinks, it includes within its reach beverages that contain any amount of fruit juice concentrate. That's an attempt, no doubt, to cover drinks other than soda that have calorie-adding sweeteners, but in practice it means that many commercial brands of plain fruit juice also would be taxed because they consist of reconstituted concentrate. It's true that some fruit juices are very high in calories while delivering little nutrition, but this measure would also affect vitamin-packed juices, protein-filled drinks and such low-calorie beverages as coconut water. The City Council would be empowered to remove drinks from the list, but there are no guarantees that it would do so.

Measure H and a similar ballot proposal in Richmond don't take nutrition into account; they don't even take calories into account. All they consider is sugar, in any form and quantity. This means that some of the newer diet soda formulations that add just a bit of sugar to improve flavor — such as Dr. Pepper 10, with only 10 calories per cup — would be taxed. (Regular soda has about 100 calories per cup.) But regular apple juice, not from concentrate, with 12 times the calories and little nutritional value, would not.

Both measures would impose a business tax rather than a sales tax, so retailers would pay the penny-per-ounce fee and then decide whether or how to pass on the cost to customers. If Measure H were a sales tax, many customers might go to neighboring towns to stock up — a two-liter bottle of soda bought outside El Monte would cost 68 cents less — and while they were there, they might purchase the rest of their groceries as well. But El Monte retailers probably would avoid that scenario by spreading their increased costs over all or most of their products, meaning that grocery shoppers would pay more for their food whether or not they drink soda, and that, because the price of soda would remain about the same, consumption wouldn't drop.

The backers of soda taxes see the El Monte and Richmond votes as a path toward statewide soda taxes, but these measures show why such levies are the wrong approach to fighting obesity.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
NutritionServices and Shopping
  • It's time for the Supreme Court to uphold gay marriage
    It's time for the Supreme Court to uphold gay marriage

    It's unusual when the winners of a case ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of their victory. But that is exactly the plea being made by lawyers for same-sex couples who successfully challenged bans on such unions in Virginia, Oklahoma and Utah. And for good reasons.

  • Broaden the 'voluntary departure' settlement
    Broaden the 'voluntary departure' settlement

    Federal immigration agents often persuade migrants from Mexico suspected of being in the U.S. illegally to sign what are known as "voluntary departure" forms, in which the detainees agree to leave the country without a deportation hearing. Used properly, the process is an expedient...

  • What the Wilderness Act has taught us
    What the Wilderness Act has taught us

    Fifty years ago Wednesday, Lyndon Johnson strolled out to the Rose Garden, pressed a fountain pen between the fingers of his hefty right hand and signed into law the highest level of protection ever afforded the American landscape. "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude...

  • Some dam questions about the California drought
    Some dam questions about the California drought

    For Southern Californians, the current record-breaking drought means letting the lawn fade to a trendy golden brown and making sure the hose doesn’t water the asphalt while you’re washing your car. It does not mean wondering whether anything will come out of the faucet and,...

  • FCC should push Comcast to get Internet to more low-income families
    FCC should push Comcast to get Internet to more low-income families

    Promises, promises. To win federal regulators' approval for its acquisition of NBC Universal, cable giant Comcast promised in 2011 to offer low-cost Internet connections to millions of low-income households in its service area for three years. Now, eager for the green light to acquire...

  • The commander in chief should not also be the 'decider in chief'
    The commander in chief should not also be the 'decider in chief'

    Just before leaving for summer recess at the end of July, the House of Representatives turned to the issue of Iraq. Throughout June, President Obama had steadily increased the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq from an initial 275 to nearly 800. Military force had not yet been used, but the...

Comments
Loading