Harvard research shows soda tax might work

Bottles of soda with strawThe debate over whether or not a tax on soda and other sugary drinks would actually discourage people from drinking them has been going on for some time. People who support the idea often point to alcohol and tobacco taxes as examples of how price increases for health-harming products can reduce their use. Anti-soda taxers say that comparing soda to things as harmful as booze or cigarettes is inaccurate, and question whether a soda tax would unfairly target specific populations.

But amidst the points and counterpoints, name-calling and finger-wagging, researchers at Harvard Medical School/Harvard Pilgrim Health Care conducted a real-life study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to see if a soda tax would help reduce soda consumption. And as it turns out, it did.In an intervention staged by researchers to try to measure the effectiveness of a soda tax, one of the hospital’s cafeterias saw soda sales slump by 26 percent, after a 35 percent tax on all regular, full-calorie soda was enacted. The sale of reduced or calorie-free diet sodas, which wasn’t taxed, rose by 20 percent during the taxation period.

“The concept of a soda tax is very controversial here in America and it’s an issue that has yet to be resolved” says John Block, MD, of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine, and lead author of a paper that reported the study’s findings in American Journal of Pediatrics. “The implications of our study are that price intervention may be an effective strategy towards a reduction in soda consumption and it should be part of the conversation when you discuss whether or not taxes can have legitimate effect in public health policies.”

John Block, MD
John Block, MD

One of the most intriguing findings from the study showed that, unlike changes in price, educational information about soda and obesity didn’t seem to influence consumers. During a portion of the study when soda was being taxed, researchers posted fliers in the cafeteria that let diners know by skipping just one regular soda a day they could lose up to 25 pounds a year. Results showed that educational information didn’t seem to affect soda sales. Block says that data was one of the study’s more surprising findings.

“There didn’t seem to be any clear independent effect from the educational intervention aspect of the study,” he says. “That’s not to say that education doesn’t work, it has to be tested in a variety of different ways, but still that aspect was surprising to us.”

While Block says the results of the price intervention study prove that there could be merit in imposing a soda tax to reduce soda consumption, he’s not sure the country is fully ready to embrace the idea.

“There are a lot of issues that come up when you talk about taxation. In terms of settled policy, the idea of taxing cigarettes or alcohol is something we’ve come to terms with in this country but I don’t think we’re there yet for soda,” he says. “But the argument will come up more and more now that there is such national momentum surrounding childhood obesity and I think the idea of a soda tax should be on the table. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the correct strategy, but I think it’s worthy of debate.”

Boston has also launched a Soda-free challenge this summer.

15 thoughts on “Harvard research shows soda tax might work

  1. Sodas does a lot of harm and sickness to children. Just like cigarettes, it should have a tax so that more people will discourage to buy them.

  2. Too much tv time is harmful too. Why don’t you tax TVs and computers 35% too??? Where do you draw the line? Maybe if we taxed cars another 35% – people would walk more.

    Since the issue seems to be price discrepency how about discounting the price of the “good for you” stuff rather than adding a tax to the “bad”. After all – not adding sugar should make the product cheaper to make! Nice bicycles shouldn’t cost more than a used car.

  3. I could not disagree more. The problem is one of parenting. We currently live in a society that insists on marginalizing parents in terms of both their responsibilities and authority and. The “family” is the most nuclear, the most important component of society and our prevelent culture overtly dismisses that fact.

    You want to see positive change in the health and wellbeing of children? Begin a campaign to elevate the family and optimize the role, responsibility and authority of parents. Modern culture may want to roll it’s eyes and yawn at the thought of Ward and June Cleaver, but there lies the solution.

  4. Typical progressive idea…control everyone’s behavior and choices by taxing them to death. Give people information, and let them choose for themselves. This is America, Cuba…yet.

  5. The frustrating thing is that parents are ultimately accountable for this, yet at the same time can we as a nation sit back knowing our youth are being setup for physical failure by parents who are either too lazy or too uneducated or simply do not care? Is it our responsibility to create these barriers to items that promote weight gain? Ideally, I think that viewing eating habits and obesity as abusive as physical violence could be the answer. Punishing the parents of overweight children as abusers even. However, this would cost money and resources that are already stretched to the maximum. What can we do to begin to force these parents to take accountability? Taxing an item is not going to solve the problem. Parental involvement will, but how can the parents be forced? They probably cannot.

    I have 4 young children and I am trying very hard to teach them healthy eating and exercise habits so that they do not struggle with their weight like I have. I am also striving to set an example by losing the remainder of the extra weight and doing so in a very healthy manner without surgical intervention. If I can do that, anyone can get off their lazy bums and do it!

    DShaw – I agree with you! The Ward and June Cleaver’s left in our society are looked down upon. I enjoyed being a stay-at-home mother for 10+ years, yet society viewed me as a total failure. Friends asked why I was wasting my education like that.

  6. I am in favour of such a soda tax. Things should be paid their real values, i.e. cigarettes, alcohol, soda, junk food against health, gasoline against environment, etc. It is not correct to have corporations get the big bucks without responsability … so no big bucks!

  7. I think most Americans have a gut reaction to reject taxes, but that’s not to say taxes should be immediately rejected; they can be a very powerful motivating tool. While we’d like to believe that with education alone we will make the right choice, the reality is that people are not rational beings. Many factors come into play, and we are very prone to temptation. Most of us already have a good sense that we should eat healthily, get exercise, get enough sleep, wear sunscreen, etc., but do we? Consistently? Without hesitation? Little nudges like a tax make it easier to make the right decision. Hypothetically, if water were $5/bottle and soda were $1/bottle, what would you pick, especially if you have limited resources? It is worth noting that support of taxes to change behavior does assume that we know what the “right” choice is. It’s pretty clear that not drinking soda (either regular OR diet) is not healthy, but other behaviors (say, subbing soy milk for dairy milk) may not be so obvious. We must be careful not to over-regulate, especially controversial behaviors. That being said, current research is indicating that sugar sweetened beverages are a huge player in the obesity epidemic and reducing their consumption could have huge public health benefits. Thus, I would be in support of a tax.

    Even better (or in combination with a sweetened beverage tax) would be subsidies for “healthy” foods. How is it justifiable that soy and corn, etc. growers are subsidized to allow for a supply of cheap, unhealthy processed food, while healthy, local fruits and vegetables (unsubsidized) are unaffordable to many?

  8. It bad enough that things are getting slow at work ( I work for a big soda company) but now a tax. We are heading into 4th of July week and we just laid off 16 mor people, implementing this tax would cripple us. Look I have worked for this company for 12 years and I very rarely drink soda I mostly drink water that we also produce. It is all about self control and teaching your kids what is good and what is no good. Soda is not a bad thing to drink in moderation. Please vote against this tax, Next thing you know they will be taxing food at grocery stores that the government thinks is no good for you. Allowing this tax may open up a can of worms that you don’t want to open.

    Thank You,


  9. Here is a mind blowing idea: how about parents become parents and tell their children if they are allowed to have the soda! My children (4.5 and 3) are not allowed to have soda on a regular basis, they get it about once a week if they are good that whole week and they split a 12 ounce can. If we go out to a restaurant, they are allowed to have a Sprite or 7-Up with the cherry flavoring. Any refills are water. Don’t put another tax on things just because people are too lazy to monitor what their children are putting into their bodies.

    1. I hear what you’re saying, but we already tax things like alcohol and cigarettes, so why should soda be any different? And if you drink soda in moderation, an additional tax should not be an overwhelming hardship. The tax is meant to reduce excessive consumption. And while I’m not suggesting you quit your job and work someplace else, you do theoretically have a choice about where you work. Reducing consumption of unhealthy things does not mean that people need to be out of work. They can (theoretically, I know it’s a tough economy right now) find similar positions for companies producing more healthy products.

  10. No way, Mary Cheh, Brian Banks and everyone else out there coming out with you’re beliefs and exuses for MD state tax, you all are a bunch of liars. Soda is liquid and honeslty doesn’t have to do anything with weightgain or obesity. Overeating or solid foods esp. poultry, meats causes obesity, weightgain combined with the fact childeren rarely exercise but instead childeren are all day online goofing off. Scientific studies don’t prove anything since most contradict each other and some overlook unseen factors in their scientitic studies. For instance they won’t compare liquid weightgain compared to solid food weightgain esp poultry and sweets. They leave other factors out to make their case look good.

    Apparently sodas and snacks esp. sodas seem to be a main health issue amongst many foods. You can’t tax something unfairly while omitting other food-that should be considered illegal.

    If soda and snacks cause childhood obesity than vending machines shouldn’t be allowed in schools and why were they allowed in the first place. Take sodas and snacks out of schools which would be the first effective action and the only solution.

    Now people need to learn to controll what they put or how much they put in their childeren mouths and people should learn to decipline their childern on eating habits. 3 plate sized meals per day and no snacks in between. Just becuase you can’t control you’re child doesn’t mean you should seek someone else to blame.

    This in the end isn’t about sodas and snacks causing diabetes, obesity but rather congress, governors, states trying to make money of the tax from sodas and snacks though they are going to use it for their own promotions and salary increase. It won’t help create jobs and the stimulus money that was suppose help businesses create jobs hasn’t be used to create jobs but increase wages of businessmen. I wouldn’t be suprised if big chain grocery stores endorsed this law or laundered money to pass this law while advertising and promoting it so that they would hinder competition.

    Whats more inappriopiate is that this laws has been passed when their are no jobs available in the economy with thousands of people beging laidoff each month. This prevents self employment in the retail sector.

  11. I absolutely agree! It works like a charm on tobaccoo as soda and candy would become a less elastic product and less comsumers would purchase the products. The consumers should be paying into the government as astronomical ammounts of government funds are going to have to support them down the road via Medicare, Medicaid, etc. While we’re at it let’s also tax fast food!

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