Mike Stobbe, AP
Small taxes on soda do little to reduce soft drink consumption or prevent childhood obesity, but larger levies probably would, states new research.
The study is being released as a recent wave of proposals would raise soda taxes or create new ones on sugared beverages. But they'll have to be a lot steeper than current taxes, which are generally four percent or less, said Roland Sturm, lead author of the new research.
“Small taxes will not prevent obesity,” said Sturm, a senior economist at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, CA. Sturm and his colleagues used information from a 2004 national survey of about 7,300 fifth-graders. The researchers looked at how the children's height and weight had changed over the previous two years and how often the kids said they drank soda and sports drinks. The researchers also reviewed taxes on carbonated drinks that were in effect in 2004.
Roughly two-thirds of the children lived in states that had a tax on soda greater than on other food items. The highest was a seven-cent-tax on each dollar's worth of soda. The average was about four cents.
They found the taxes made no real difference on overall soda consumption or on obesity for kids overall. They did have a small effect on certain kids from families with an annual income of $25,000 or less. Those kids, on average, drank one less can because of the taxes, Sturm said.
However, if the taxes were more like 18 cents on the dollar, Sturm calculated it would make a significant difference. Most states exempt grocery food from sales taxes. But in recent years, candy and soft drinks have been increasingly targeted, either through a tax or removal of an existing sales tax exemption.
The children in the study were from 40 states, 20 of which had soda taxes when the study was done. More than 30 states have some form of soda tax today, averaging about five cents per dollar of soda.
In the last month, Colorado removed a three percent sales tax exemption for candy and soda. Philadelphia's mayor proposed a two cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, which would add 24 cents to the price of a can of Coke.
Most of the taxes tend to be enough to bring in some extra money for struggling state budgets, but small enough not to rile soda manufacturers or significantly change buying habits, said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Most people don't want their soda taxed, according to the American Beverage Association, which represents soda manufacturers. Association officials noted that Maine voters last fall rejected a soda tax. And in a press release last week, the organization pointed to a recent survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by Rasmussen Reports that found 56 percent of Americans are against taxes on candy and soda.
“Taxes don't work,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, spokesman for the beverage association. “What does work is balancing diet and exercise.”