Earlier this week, the French government passed a new law introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks which will apply to soft drinks (both sugar and diet) and sweetened juices. Public health campaigners are delighted. But the tax–a minimal 1 cent per container–has been criticized as ‘discriminatory’ by manufacturers, who have threatened to increase prices significantly (some newspaper articles talk of 20 to 30% rises) to offset lost profits.
France joins a number of other European countries (Denmark, Hungary) which have implemented so-called ‘sin taxes’ or ‘fat taxes’ over the past few years. Critics argue that the low levels of such taxes won’t deter necessarily consumption. But they will bring in a lot of revenue: an estimated $150 million for the French government–which will be welcome in the current economic climate.
In the US, the debate over ‘fat taxes’ heated up in the 1990s following a New York Times op-ed by Kelly D. Brownell (director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale). He argued that the lower cost of unhealthy food creates an incentive to consume it: more calories for your buck. Other food writers like Michael Pollan have gone further and argued that government subsidies (notably via the Farm Bill) keep the prices of unhealthy food artificially low. But proponents of ‘personal responsibility’, from Sarah Pailin to Rush Limbaugh, have argued against government meddling in food choices (and personal decisions of any kind).
The French see it differently. They feel that a healthy food system and healthy eating depend on both personal responsibility and on social responsibility–supported by government regulation as appropriate. In my opinion, and as I’ve blogged on my French Kids Lunch Project, this has resulted in better nutrition for children–both at home and in schools.
What do you think? Is taxing soda the right thing to do? Is better food a question of personal responsibility, or social responsibility, or both?
One thought on “France’s new tax on soda pop: Should we tax ‘bad’ foods?”
I’m not for picking one food to tax just for the purpose of raising greater revenue. Such a tax would have a greater effect on the poor, who might not be as quick to give up something such as soda as the proponents of such a tax would suggest. i had some experience with this years ago when I used to work with the poor elderly who wouldn’t give up their cigarettes that were becoming ever more expensive due to increased taxation.
I think what makes taxing a specific food item different than taxing alcohol or cigarettes is that taxing soda only addresses one part of the problem. There are overweight people who don’t drink soda and there are healthy people that drink soda in moderation.
While cigarette taxes(along with a lot of other legislation forbidding smoking in most public places)has helped decrease the amount of smokers, I don’t think alcohol taxes , or other legislation regarding alcohol related issues has helped decrease problems related to alcohol at all. So it is hard to predict what a soda tax would actually accomplish.
While I do think that ingesting sugar containing beverages CAN make maintaining weight more difficult…I think that is only one part of the problem. Plenty of people have foods that they find challenging….should we start to tax cheese or chocolate…or the individual ingredients for a batch of sugar cookies?
As far as Michael Pollan’s arguments…I’m not sure I buy that entirely. For one soda isn’t cheap…it is probably comparable in price per ounce to milk. Many people drink caffeine containing sodas as an alternative to coffee…not sure how it compares to coffee, but I doubt it is cheaper.
What would the revenue from a soda tax be used for…if it simply to increase general revenue, then I would think it would be more practical to change the tax code first. Certainly for the US, I think this would be best considered on a state by state basis.