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?