Taxing Sugary Soda

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Via Matt Yglesias, here’s a chart from a recent Dept. of Agriculture study suggesting that a 20% tax on sugary soft drinks would reduce overall consumption of said beverages and thereby reduce our net calorie intake from all beverages:

By assuming that 1 pound of body fat has about 3,500 calories, and assuming all else remains equal, the daily calorie reductions would translate into an average reduction of 3.8 pounds over a year for adults and 4.5 pounds over a year for children.

Not so fast, I say. Even assuming that all the assumptions in the report are correct, all it does is show that our net calorie intake from beverages would, on average, go down. But if you switch to diet soda, it’s pretty likely that you’ll just make up the calories somewhere else. In fact, if this study is correct, it’s possible that you might increase your total calorie intake.

I’d actually be interested in some large state imposing a tax like this purely for research purposes, and since I don’t drink sugared soda I’d be happy to nominate California. We need the money anyway. But my guess is that the results would disappointing. People might end up swilling less high-fructose corn syrup, but they’d probably just eat more corn nuts to make up for it.

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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