Professor suggests tax on sugary sodas

Red Bulls, Vitamin Waters and Starbucks Doubleshots are but a few of the tools most Elis will rely on in the weeks leading up to finals. But according to psychology professor Kelly Brownell, the drinks many students view as absolute necessities are often detrimental to public health, and should be subject to special taxation.

Brownell, who also serves as director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, argues in favor of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugared drinks in an opinion piece entitled “Ounces of Prevention — The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages,” published in last week’s online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The op-ed is based on the results of a study the Rudd Center conducted in 2007, which suggest increased soft drink consumption correlates with obesity and poor nutrition.

Proponents argue that a soda tax would help to curb America’s obesity epidemic.
Philip Hu
Proponents argue that a soda tax would help to curb America’s obesity epidemic.

Co-written with Thomas Frieden, the health commissioner for the city of New York, “Ounces of Prevention” attempts to prove a link — contested by the beverage industry — between increased weight and sugared drink consumption. The two write that Americans currently consume 250 to 300 more calories per day than in decades past — and are gaining weight because of it.

The authors attribute this jump to the consumption of sugared drinks, a category which includes any beverage made with a caloric sweetener like energy drinks, sports drinks and non-diet soft drinks. In taxing sugared drinks, Brownell and Frieden say, states have a chance to curb the obesity epidemic and earn much-needed revenue.

Dr. Melinda Irwin, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health and obesity and cancer researcher who strongly supports the tax, said in an e-mail message Tuesday that obesity reduction demands “novel interventions.”

“Upstream approaches, such as [those at the] structural, environmental and policy levels are necessary,” Irwin said. “Taxing soft drinks is one such intervention.”

In late 2008, New York Gov. David Paterson proposed a tax much like the one Brownell and Frieden are suggesting. The 18 percent tax on sweetened drinks, which many media outlets referred to as an “obesity tax,” was ultimately scrapped. Though Paterson’s estimated that the tax could return $400 million in revenue, he withdrew it from consideration in March 2009 after receiving federal stimulus money.

Many fiscal conservatives described Paterson’s tax as an undue burden imposed on the American family by a “nanny state.” Some public health figures hailed the proposal as a way for states to raise money to pay for the health care record numbers of obese individuals are seeking, and to prevent the obesity epidemic from spreading any further.

Within the beverage industry, however, response to a sweetened beverage tax has been less than enthusiastic.

Tracey Halliday, American Beverage Association’s director of communications, described the tax as “regressive” and said it could potentially harm lower-income American families.

“Hardworking American families are already struggling to pay bills and buy groceries,” Halliday said in an e-mail Tuesday. “A tax such as the one suggested by Kelly Brownell [and Frieden] would do nothing but further increase their burden.”

Not so, Brownell retorted in an e-mail Tuesday.

“Any regressive nature of the tax could be offset if the revenue is used to fund programs that would help the poor,” Brownell said, referring to the article’s suggestions that revenue from the tax be used to fund health and nutrition initiatives and to stimulate industries which suffer due to the reduced consumption of sugared beverages.

Still, Halliday argued that the correlation between soft drink consumption and obesity is unfounded.

“Soft drinks are not the cause of obesity. If you eat or drink too much of anything without burning those calories off, you will gain weight,” Halliday said, citing the results of a recent study that found that weight-loss diets were successful regardless of the source of the calories consumed.

But Brownell dismissed this claim, saying his proposed tax is not designed to help people lose weight, but rather to prevent diet-related diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.

The tax would not merely discourage the already obese from consuming sugared drinks, however. Michael Lavigne ’09, a psychology major who said he is interested in Brownell’s op-ed , said the tax would give many people pause before purchasing such a beverage.

“The fiscal burden would be powerful, but I think it would also make consumers consider why it was taxed in the first place,” Lavigne said.

When asked if he supported the tax, Lavigne was reluctant to answer.

“I suppose so,” Lavigne said, “but maybe only because I never drink soda.”

Brownell said that the Rudd Center will continue researching policy options related to the prevention of diet-related diseases in coming months.


  • Y'11

    The government's there to answer to us, not to manipulate people into choosing the "right" habits. I can somewhat tolerate the taxation of tobacco due to the second-hand smoke argument. In this case, however, it's not as if you're getting your neighbor fat by drinking coke. If regular soda drinking is a serious health risk, force the companies to put warnings on the package or whatever… but NO taxation. People should have the freedom to be in charge of their own lifestyle.

  • Arthur

    It's interesting that a professor wants to change others' behavior through punitive taxation rather than through education.

  • Yale 08

    This is 100% paternalistic.

    The nanny-state is here.

  • Robert 69

    Hey, Professor Brownell!
    You're not my mother! It's none of your damn business what I eat or drink, and it's certainly not the government's business.
    Get a grip professor; or better yet, go read the U.S. Constitution, which, while it guarantees your right to say or think whatever silliness you want, doesn't give you the right to impose that silliness on others.

  • the picture

    his picture = true shock.

    "I can't believe my campaign worked!"

    Sheesh, I feel like I'm in high school again.

  • heartsurgeon

    basically, the dear professor is proposing yet another "sin tax"..this time the sin is carbonated beverages…
    well how about candy bars? pasta?, heck why not just weigh people on April 15th each year, and tax them extra if they are overweight…oh wait, that's next in the "healthcare reform act" that's being cooked up right now….

    of course all the chunky members of low income groups will be complaining of racist tax policies that "target them"

    yep..this is a real non-starter….

  • Anonymous

    I propose a tax on pointless research articles by left-wing intellectuals.

  • SJ

    More social engineering. What's for a prof not to like?

  • getfit

    before people launch into knee-jerk right wing reaction, consider the fact that you and I are affected when other Americans are obese. Obese people are more likely to have chronic diseases. They overburden our healthcare system (no pun intended), which in turn raises costs and insurance premiums for everybody.

    So go to the gym and eat well--it's an act of community service!

  • genetics grad student

    Thanks prof, for wasting research money that actually could be making a difference.

  • To #8

    #8, I see the problem, but do you think that it justifies the government deciding what we can put in our mouths?

  • Jman

    #9: You just discovered a wonderful tool for social change… congratulations. Just in case you missed it… it's called free speech which you just exercised. Notice how it didn't involve sending a bill to someone who doesn't agree with you? If people don't listen to you, that's their right just as it's yours to try to get your point across. Once you cross into punitive and coercive measures, whatever you're proposing is wrong. Why can't people get that it's not the goal that conservatives object to, its the method. You can't ignore the law and people's constitutional rights simply because it's convenient and a "really really good cause."

  • Jman

    Oops… I meant to respond to #8.

  • Y '09

    Why not subsidize water filters instead? That way, everyone can have a ready supply of cheap, potable water, encouraging them to drink that instead of buying soda, as well as reducing illnesses from drinking contaminated water. The only problem is then how to dispose of used filters, which doesn't seem to have a good solution yet. Subsidizing milk/good orange juice so that it's cheaper than soda might also be a better idea than additional taxes.

  • yale

    yeah.. I'm fairly liberal, but i've got to side with the conservatives on this one. not cool mr. professor.

  • Old Coot Yalie

    Re : Red Bull, Vitamin Water, and Starbucks Doubleshot (apparently) being some of the favorites of modern day Yalies --

    You know, when I was at Yale (1970s), people were actually smart.

    Now, I guess it is more important to be perceived as "cool" than to be smart. (Exhibit A -- witness the success (at least for now) of over-priced products from Apple (Computer.))

    If you want a caffeine "fix," a generic pill from Target or Walmart, combined with water from a drinking fountain will have the same effect on your brain as many "energy booster" concoctions.

    For the environmentally conscious -- 40 or 60 doses of caffeine from Target or Walmart are contained in one little bottle.


    "Vitamin Water" has special place in the stupidity spectrum.

    Ask any physicians you know if they recommend vitamin supplements for their patients (other than pregnant women), or … if they take vitamins themselves.

    One of my doctors commented that one should take vitamins if you want EXPENSIVE URINE.

    Old coot Yalie.

  • albert kapustar

    I read on one of the wbsites that high fructose syrup has high concentrations of mercury used to process it.Mercury is one of the deadlist poisens know so I think they should tax high fructose out of existence seeing as how our government no longer cares about human life.

  • HMMM

    It's ironic that the prof proposing these wonderful taxes for us isn't exactly slim, check out his profile

    Basically, since he can't control his eating habits, that means none of us can.

  • Y' 09

    I think this is a good idea. Tax fat people for being aesthetically unpleasant.

  • Yale '00

    What a depressing bunch of comments. These libertarian arguments are so pitifully easy to knock down. Just for starters, we ALREADY tax zillions of products, including soft drinks (sales tax); we have more specific taxes on products like alcohol that vary by the type of alcohol; we have taxes on cigarettes (even for those who live alone and smoke only at home); we have special provisions in our Connecticut tax code to encourage renewable energy, "brownfields" redevelopment, and tons of other things we want to encourage; we have special provisions for smoking cessation products (they are exempt from sales tax, because we want to encourage people to buy them); we tax gasoline to get some money for highways, and may raise those taxes to encourage people to buy more energy-efficient cars; there are special tax breaks in Connecticut for trigger locks and bicycle helmets, because we want to encourage people to buy those things… the list goes on and on and on.

    So maybe you want to throw out all these provisions of the tax code and more, on the grounds that they're paternalistic. But honestly, if that's your view, you're pretty out of touch with reality. In America (like everywhere else), we use the tax code to promote the things we want as a society to promote, and to discourage the things we want to discourage. Unless the taxes are really exorbitant, they simply do not constitute a violation of your "liberty" to drink soft drinks. If you think paying one more penny for something is destroying your "liberty" to buy it then you are very, very confused.

    The mantra of people who want to legalize marijuana (I'm one of those people) is "legalize it, tax it, regulate it." The idea is that moving from a prohibition to a tax would leave people free to buy it if they choose, but the government could collect revenue too, and possibly discourage use through a tax. I suppose everybody in this comment thread who's bashing Kelly Brownell's idea thinks that a tax on marijuana would violate your liberty?

    Finally, just to make the really obvious point that nobody seems to have even tried to refute: your obesity costs ME a lot of money. We may not have universal health care, but my insurance premiums for my whole life are going to reflect the astronomical cost of the diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related problems caused by you drinking too many soft drinks and eating too much junk food. We can debate whether Brownell's method would do any good, and lots of questions like that. But don't give me this ridiculous Braveheart-at-the-cash-register argument that a penny of tax is taking away your freedom.

  • yale 08

    At Yale '00,

    You are a coward.

    Afraid to challenge the status quo?

    Afraid to smash sacred idols?

    I thought we were all supposed to be full of "hope and change"?

    Our government is broken.

  • yaylie

    Thank you Yale 00. Exactly what I wanted to say. Except the other comments are not so much depressing as they are idiotic. #20 - what does this have to do with challenging status quo? The list of correct and beneficial taxes is not the status quo we want to challenge - it's the wasteful spending. Notice how #13 was quick to propose a subsidy instead of a tax. People - when will it get through your thick heads that the government needs to pay for the things it spends money on with your taxes. And that in a democracy, it is most politically expedient to tax one narrow subgroup of the population at a time, provided there's some legitimate pretext. A tax on sodas? Great. On corn syrup? Even better, although that'll never happen because of the repugnant agrolobby. A tax on avoidable obesity would also be a good idea along those same lines.

  • Yale 08


    I do not belong to your religion.

    My views are that government is a dangerous beast to be kept on a tight leash. Cut spending, cut taxes.

    You can go worship the Big Government god.

    Just realize that you are sacrificing liberty and freedom on an altar of tyranny.