The case of the sugar sweetened beverage taxBMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c3719 (Published 14 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3719
All rapid responses
When food campaigners don’t like something, their basic reaction is
to tax it.
The latest example (Kamerow, Yankee Doodling, 17 July), is the soft drink
in the US --- successor to the junk food tax, the fat tax, the sugar tax.
have failed. So we keep getting fatter and fatter.
Of course, we need to raise the price of unhealthy foods. Of course,
companies fund consumer organisations to front their fight --- just like
But when are public health advocates going to get clever, instead of
conspiracy every time they lose?
Let’s start from Square One. People hate taxes. Americans hate them
than most. After all, the TEA Party stands for “taxed enough already”.
Most of all, people resent taxes on pleasures. The more visible the
more they hate it. So proposing a tax on soft drinks is guaranteed to
consumer backlash --- whether drink manufacturers bribe them or not.
So how do you raise the price of soft drinks without a tax? Here are
options, using America’s bloated agricultural support system for public
1. Raise the support price for sugar. Yes, raise it --- so the
lobby won’t resist. The higher sugar price will feed through to higher
for all sweetened foods, not just soft drinks. That includes
cream, biscuits, breakfast cereals. Then….
2. Cut the production quotas for US sugar. Having had a price rise,
won’t scream too loudly when quotas are reduced a bit. But a smaller
will put further upward pressure on prices. That will only work if you
3. Raise the tariffs and cut the quotas on sugar imports, so that
foreign supplies do not undercut the new higher US domestic price. And
4. Eliminate the tariff free quotas on some foreign sugar that are a
feature of US policy.
The higher price for sugar will lead quickly to a price gap opening
sugared and sugarless soft drinks. This will give an economic incentive
The World Health Organisation has a slogan: make the healthy choice
choice. This strategy extends that logic --- make the healthy choice the
The tactical advantage of this approach is that the mechanisms behind
price rise are virtually invisible to the public. Few consumers ever
understand agricultural policy.
And by making sugarless soft drinks look cheaper, it even seems to
bargain. The strategy also carries a nationalist halo, appearing to
It is not only American health policy makers who should adopt this
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy recently CUT the price of sugar by 36%
-- in the midst of an obesity epidemic! The same policy prescription
with even greater force, in Europe.
Prof J T Winkler
Director, Nutrition Policy Unit
28 St Paul Street
London N1 7AB
Competing interests: No competing interests