The Soda Tax Wars Are Back: Brace Yourself

Last Updated Mar 25, 2010 9:30 AM EDT

A new poll touted by the American Beverage Association signals that, after successfully beating back a congressional proposal for taxes on soda last year, the group is gearing up for a new round of battles. This time, though, it's not going to be so easy.

The $110 billion beverage industry is now facing not one federal initiative but more than a dozen state and local plans. Places like Kansas, California, Philadelphia and New York State want to use a soda tax -- one penny per ounce is the levy most often cited -- to help reduce obesity and raise much-needed funds. California's proposed legislation, for instance, could raise $1.5 billion a year for a state that can barely afford to keep the lights on.

The beverage association argues that a soda tax will do diddly squat for obesity largely because, the group claims, soda is not to blame for obesity. "It's the couch, not the can" is one of their favorite mottos. The latest survey, which is promoted on the ABA's web site but was done independently by Rasmussen Reports, shows that 56 percent of Americans oppose a tax on soft drinks, which is not surprising since Americans oppose taxes on just about everything. Were the ABA to commission a poll on how many Americans think soda causes people to have to buy bigger jeans, the results would probably not be as promising.

Still, the jury is out on whether a 20 cent hike in the price of your average bottle of pop is going to make a dent in our national obesity problem or even change drinking habits (it's not exactly a punitive $2 levy that's slapped on a pack of cigarettes). Soda tax guru Kelly Brownell at Yale University has calculated that a penny-an-ounce tax would create a 23% drop in consumption. The ABA cites its own set of stats, like National Cancer Institute data showing that sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 5.5 percent of the average person's diet.

But what soda tax opponents don't want to admit is that a levy on sugared water can be an effective weapon in that it represents a powerful message. It puts soda squarely in the cigarette and alcohol category as something that we as a society need to either cut back on or stomp out, or at least tax in order to fund programs that will counter the horrible effects.

It's likely that despite the ABA's best efforts -- last year a beverage industry coalition called Americans Against Food Taxes unleashed a $10 million TV ad campaign warning against taxing food -- there will be soda taxes in at least some places in America in the years to come. The bright side for the beverage industry? At least it's we're not carding kids to buy soda, as pediatric endocrinologist and You Tube sensation Robert Lustig has proposed. Not yet at least.

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