The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the U.S. should start taxing soda like cigarettes and alcohol

Paying a few more cents could make a lot more sense than you might think. (George Frey/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

Last week, Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro posed a daring question in the House of Representatives: Why shouldn't Americans pay a premium to slurp on sugary drink?

Her ask, presented in the form of a 14-page bill called the SWEET act, which specifically targets drinks with added sugars and would levy a roughly 15 cent tax on 20-ounce bottles of soda, is an unpopular one—fewer than a quarter of Americans support a soda tax, according to a survey from a year ago. But there's actually good reason to believe the public shouldn't be so averse to paying a bit more for its pop.

Soda consumption might be falling in the U.S., but that doesn't mean America isn't still head over heels for the stuff. The country's intake is still both historically and globally exceptional. Americans on average drank well over a can of soda per day last year (nearly one and a quarter, to be more exact), according to estimates by market research firm Euromonitor. That's almost 75 percent more than in 1970, when the average American drank less than three quarters of a can each day, and enough to make the U.S. the biggest per capita consumer in the world.

America's love affair with soda has occurred alongside an eerily similar climb in the country's sugar intake.

And, at the same time, more Americans have become obese. Americans aged 20 and older are more than twice as likely to be obese as they were 40 years ago. The problem is such that it has earned the United States the unenviable distinction of being the most obese major country in the world.

Unfortunately, that moniker doesn't come cheap. The price of the country's joint obesity and diabetes epidemic is steep: Some believe annual medical costs tower to almost $150 billion annually, while others think overall spending could very well amount to several times more than that. And everyone—soda drinkers and shunners alike—bears those costs, by way of tax dollars. A significant and growing portion of the national health care budget is being spent on obesity and diabetes care.

Soda and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption isn't, of course, the only reason for America's growing waistline. The general American diet, and increasingly immobile daily American life, are key factors, too—but sugar is easily the simplest and most natural to target.

Soda is almost certainly a significant contributor to the nation's collective weight problems. "Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic," according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The school's website cites several studies that establish sugary drinks (of which soda is the most prevalent example) increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, among other things. 

Liquids, even those that carry hundreds of calories like sodas, simply don't satiate stomachs like solid foods do either—meaning that people who consume sugar-filled fluids don't compensate by eating less. DeLauro puts it similarly: "Sugar-sweetened beverages tend to add to the calories people consume rather than replace calories from other foods and beverages," she writes in her bill.

Fast and processed foods might be contributing to the country's growing gut, but they're also feeding a lot of people who would otherwise go hungry. Sugary drinks, on the other hand, are indulgences and little more. Everyone would be better off drinking water instead, and everyone could, for the same price, or cheaper.

Delauro's proposal isn't the first of its kind. Illinois Representative Robyn Gabel introduced a similar albeit state-specific one earlier this year, and San Francisco and Berkeley are set to vote on—and possibly pass—similar city-specific measures come November.

The concept of a national sugary drinks tax isn't even all that novel considering the widely accepted and long-held taxes levied on tobacco and alcohol—the two are taxed at both the federal and state level to compensate for their respective social costs. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in this country. It's not unreasonable to view sugary drinks and sodas, which are as inessential as cigarettes and alcohol, in the same light. It shouldn't be unreasonable to tax them on similar grounds either—especially not when studies have tied a soda tax to significant reductions in the average American caloric intake, body weight, and obesity prevalence countrywide.