Commentary

Proposed Soda Ban Is a Bitter Pill

By Michael L. Marlow and Alden F. Shiers
This article appeared on AOL News on October 18, 2010.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently submitted a proposal to bar his city’s food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy soda or other sugared drinks. Since becoming mayor, Bloomberg has launched a number of initiatives to improve New Yorkers’ diets, including banning the use of trans fats in restaurants and requiring that restaurants post their foods’ calorie counts. The sugared drink ban is another step in that effort, intended to fight obesity.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting taxpayer money to be spent on healthy diets. However, it’s unlikely that Bloomberg’s proposal would reduce city waistlines or improve health. Here’s why:

Roughly one-third of U.S. adults are obese and another quarter are overweight, according to the latest federal data. Obviously, consuming additional calories, such as those found in sugared beverages, contributes to weight gain.

But nutritional research suggests that soda consumption alone contributes little to American waistlines. David Allison and Richard Mattes, food and nutrition researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Purdue University, respectively, recently wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that, given current evidence, little can be said with confidence about the weight effects of soda consumption. The authors go on to criticize the media for exaggerating the health effects of normal soda drinking.

Moreover, Americans’ consumption of sodas has been declining for more than a decade. According to the industry journal Beverage Today, consumption is down 15 percent since 1998.

Other factors in American lifestyles seem to have stronger links to obesity. Those factors include lack of exercise, age, genetics, and consumption of other high-calorie foods. If those factors go unaddressed (and some of them can’t be addressed), then there is little reason to think Bloomberg’s proposal would have much effect on food stamp recipients’ weight.

However, the ban could have some worrisome unintended consequences. Among them:

  • Food stamp recipients might choose to buy high-fat foods, sweets and foods with many artificial ingredients to satisfy their sweet tooth and desire for tasty items.
  • The might also simply add more sugar to home-brewed iced tea, substituting one high-calorie drink for another.
  • Food manufacturers would likely respond with new soft drink offerings creatively engineered to avoid the sugar tax, with unknown health effects.

The ban may also distract people from a simple but effective strategy of weight loss: Eat less, exercise more. A soda ban sends the message that individual responsibility and motivation are being replaced by government responsibility over people’s health.

Substituting government for personal responsibility never works out as planned, but it could prove especially harmful to the obese, who must struggle mightily with self-discipline in order to lose weight.

Most troubling, however, is the unintended consequence that Bloomberg’s proposal could have on policymakers. As it seems unlikely the soda ban improve health, what other interventions and coercions would policymakers try next? What is the limit of policymakers’ control over private choices, even when the policymakers are acting with the best of intentions?

Bloomberg’s desire to improve New Yorkers’ health is laudable, as is the desire that food stamp recipients use their subsidy to purchase healthy food. But politicians and public health advocates are unlikely to be very good at coercing the overweight to become slimmer.

Michael L. Marlow and Alden F. Shiers are professors of economics at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Their paper “Would Soda Taxes Really Yield Health Benefits?” appears in the fall issue of the Cato Institute journal Regulation.