A recent report by the United Nations calls for a worldwide tax on soft drinks—exactly like the one Richmond will be voting on this November.
The implementation and amount of the tax, and whether it should be levied on consumers or the industry is left to the state. However, the report does recommend that the revenue be used to subsidize healthier products and health education. The UN also advises other measures such as closer regulation of the food industry and stimulating local production.
The report argues that problems caused by an unhealthy diet are already costing people money. “Taxpayers pay for misguided subsidies that encourage the agrifood industry to sell heavily processed foods at the expense of making fruits and vegetables available at lower prices; they pay for the marketing efforts of the same industry”, states the report. It adds that the problem is more extensive, as people also “pay for health-care systems for which non-communicable diseases today represent an unsustainable burden.”
Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, which often can be linked directly to obesity, are rapidly becoming the leading cause of death in large parts of the world. Unless action is taken, children in the United States may well have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Estimates by the Contra Costa Health Services project that 42 percent of future adults in Richmond will be obese.
The proposed tax in Richmond would add a penny to every ounce of soda, raising the price of a two-liter bottle by about 68 cents. Several councilmembers and health officials, who see soda as the leading cause of the obesity epidemic, support the measure. According to them, the revenue generated will be spent on public health.
The UN report produces little in the way of new science, but advocates of the Richmond soda tax still feel it supports their position. “The great thing is that it places food and nutrition in the context of human rights,” said Councilman Jeff Reitterman. “Everyone is entitled to a healthy diet, and we are a long way from that.”
But the effectiveness of such a tax is much disputed. A 2009 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that a tax would not me much of a deterrent—a 50 percent tax would only lower consumption by 3 percent, the study’s authors concluded. However, a 2010 study by the Archive of Internal Medicine found that an 18 percent tax on soft drinks and pizza will result in an average weight loss of 5 pounds per year per person.
A real life experiment is currently underway. In October 2010, Denmark adopted a “fat-tax” on all products containing saturated fats. In dollars, the tax adds about 40 percent to the price of a burger, and a nickel to a liter of soda. Unfortunately the Danish Ministry of health says it is too early for definitive conclusions. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, are considering similar legislation.
In Richmond the debate continues. To Councilman Corky Boozé, the report is of little consequence. “I call it a poor people’s obesity tax,” he said. According to Boozé the tax will hurt local business that sells soda, as consumers will go elsewhere, and have little effect because other unhealthy products are still available. He also says the comparison with Denmark is misplaced. “We have more rights in California than they have in Denmark. Americans won’t stand for such measures,” he said.
Nevertheless, he agrees obesity is a problem. But the solution should be found elsewhere, he said. “If we were talking about cigarettes, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he said. “But if you want to stop obesity, you have to put physical education back in schools. You have to educate people mentally. How else are you going to keep them from eating a steak dinner?
Ritterman agrees that just educating the public is not sufficient. “You need a carrot and a stick. The carrot is that you’ll live longer and feel healthier, the stick is the tax, which worked very well for cigarettes,” he said.
He also denies that the tax is targeted at poor people. “It’s a tax on soda. It’s true that the tax is regressive, but it is also true that the problem is regressive,” he said. “Poor people are already paying—with their health.