The following piece, written by the editorial editors, reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.
Last week, the United Kingdom introduced a tax on sugary soda drinks in an effort to combat childhood obesity, according to Vox News.
The majority of our editorial board applauds this decision and hopes to see similar legislature enacted at the state, if not federal, level here in the United States in the future.
Mexico and Berkeley, California, already have soda taxes in place. After approval by more than three-quarters of voters, Berkeley implemented a one percent tax on soft drinks in November 2014. Mexico has taxed sugary drinks since 2013, charging producers an extra peso for every liter of the beverage. This amounts to “about a 10 percent price increase,” which is reflected as a higher list price, according to The New York Times.
Similar “sin taxes,” or extra taxes above the normal rates, exist on tobacco and alcohol — items known to have harmful health effects, but that people continue to buy anyway.
A little over one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) calls childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.”
Obesity increases the risk for health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. To reduce consumption of soda, and potentially reduce the risk of obesity, a tax seems appropriate.
But will it work? While a soda tax sounds like a magical solution, it could also be insignificant in terms of consumer decision-making.
Will seeing a slightly higher price truly discourage someone from buying his or her favorite beverage? What about when a bottle of soda — including tax — is still cheaper than a water bottle?
Preliminary data in Mexico suggests that soda consumption is declining, The New York Times reported in October 2015. Between December 2013 and 2014, there was a six percent decrease in soda sales. However, as a decrease in sales is consistent with trends nationwide, it is uncertain whether the taxes are the cause.
Hopefully, the new taxes will spark discussion and change the public’s mindset.
Higher prices will discourage at least some consumers from buying sugary, non-juice drinks as often, and — as in the case of smoking — if the behavior becomes less common, it will also becomes less acceptable. Reversing trends takes time. Obesity rates climbed over decades, so they cannot be expected to fall overnight.
However, blaming the obesity epidemic entirely on soda is oversimplifying a complex issue. Obesity can be caused by a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices, including diet and lack of exercise.
True change will come only when we teach people how to live a healthy lifestyle, not just make it a little harder — or more expensive — to continue living an unhealthy one.
Consider how obesity rates disproportionately affect those in impoverished areas. These people are less educated and have lower incomes, driving them to make unhealthy choices. Between getting their kids to school and going to work, they may not have time to cook a balanced meal for their families each night. They may not know buying fresh groceries is better than relying on fast food. And they may not understand sugary drinks or snacks have harmful health consequences.
They do not know this because companies do not want them to know. Food manufacturers exploit people’s cravings for sugar and fat, which make food taste good and customers come back for more. And without the knowledge of what’s happening, people are helpless.
Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move,” campaign is an excellent example of proactive programming. “Let’s Move,” launched in 2010, is a comprehensive initiative focused on giving schools, parents and children information to help them lead healthy lifestyles.
Critics of the plan wondered whether it was going too far — shaming parents for allowing their children sugary snacks and questioning their authority. However, last April at the five-year anniversary of “Let’s Move,” Mrs. Obama said she felt her campaign helped to raise awareness about childhood obesity.
Again, we understand that a single campaign cannot solve one of our most serious health epidemics. We need a multifaceted approach to fight obesity. It will take time, and it will take the combined efforts of corporations, the government and individuals.
As with any behavior, responsibility for our health is our own. It’s up to us to make good choices and lead a healthy lifestyle. But interventions like a soda tax can be the push some people need to change their habits.