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Taxing Soda And The Fight Against Obesity: Listeners Weigh In

Displayed is a nutrition label on a can of soda with the ingredient high fructose corn syrup. (AP).

Back when I was in seconnd grade, I remember one day we did this little science experiment in class. A dentist came in — he happened to be the dad of one of my classmates — and he brought with him a six-pack of soda. So he stands there in front of the class and talks about how soda has caffeine, it’s carbonated, it tastes great, etc., but that it also has a ton of sugar in it. And he says, “And here’s what all that sugar does to your teeth!” He holds up a clear plastic cup that’s got a dark soda in it, and at the bottom, there’s this dissolving, decayed, disgusting tooth. We were 8 years old, so totally grossed out.

Looking back on that now, it’s still gross, but it also seems more than a little dated, because tooth decay, while serious, isn’t the biggest of soda’s problems. Really, what the dentist should have said is, “Look at what it does to your body!” Because soda now seems to be public enemy No. 1 when it comes to America’s very serious obesity epidemic.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. Here in Massachusetts, a legislative effort to end the sales tax exemption on soda went down in flames last month.

And yet, the calorie count and sugar content in soda are a problem. But today, we’ll take a moment to explore whether taxes and bans, essentially punitive measures, are really the best way to deal with obesity. Should we be saying, “AMERICA, put down the Double Big Gulp!” Or maybe instead, design policy and maybe even tax incentives to encourage healthier living?


  • Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health
  • Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University

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  • Marjorie Gian

    how can we tax toilet paper and soap which we all need? and not tax soda?

    • Joanna

       Absolutely agree… Also, as I mentioned above, you can get soda and candy with food stamps.  You cannot buy: toilet paper, laundry detergent, or soap… Strange, ain’t it?

  • J__o__h__n

    If ending the sales tax exemption for soda wouldn’t raise enough to cut consumption, eliminate the sales tax exemption for clothing with large waist sizes.   

  • RC

    Cigarette smoking immediately affects all who are in the vicinity of the smoker.  Sugary soda drinking does not blatantly affect those who do not choose to drink sugary sodas. There are many other factors involved in excessive weight gain besides the consumption of sugary sodas, indeed, many factors can be involved other than food choices.

  • J__o__h__n

    Stop subsidizing corn!

  • RC

    Does your guest have any idea how difficult it might be for overweight children to be singled out for their so-called “bad eating behaviors” in school? 

    • J__o__h__n

      Two thirds of the country is overweight or obese.  There can’t be too much of a stigma.  Perhaps more of one is needed – it has worked for reducing the number of smokers. 

  • T-T

    Stop government price supports for corn (syrup) and sugar. Typical American approach: government supports agri-business to allow cheaply sweetened soda, and then, after people swill the cheap stuff, government begins a discussion to tax the soda to protect people from themselves.

  • Sheryl Marcus

    As a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist, I know the nexus between obesity, overweight, and all types of eating disorders can be a very delicate and ambiguous place that lends itself to misinterpretation.  While I am completely in favor of nutrition/obesity education and exploring ways to deal with the obesity epidemic, I think it’s extremely important, at the same time, to put in place a program showing “what does healthy look like?”  Two generations ago healthy looked very different than what people think of “healthy” or ideal body weight today.  When I look in clothing catalogs for women and junior girls, it’s difficult for my mind’s eye to understand that these women don’t represent me or most other females that I know.  Instead they are women and girls several inches taller than most of us and many, many pounds lighter.  I just want to be sure that with obesity programs we make the goals clear because in adolescence and in today’s culture, a misinterpretation of what “healthy” looks like can take us in a direction of physical instability and psychological instability, too.

  • Joanna

    Food stamps can be used for soda (and candy and a myriad of other junk foods…)

    The government should not be in the business of providing access to products which make people sicker.  It’s analogous to giving away alcohol or ciggarrettes.  People may moan and groan initially about not being able to buy whatever they want, but it would be a good policy change to limit food stamps to actual food! (Farmer’s markets in the city of Boston are giving incentives to food stamp users to buy produce.  This is a wonderful idea which I hope is taken up by suburban farmer’s markets. )

    Back to soda—why not increase deposit amounts on the bottles?  The manufacture and disposal of the plastics containing the sugary stuff is just as dangerous as the drinks themselves and states with higher deposits on bottles see a much higher rate of recycling.  It’s a two-fer: increase the purchase price of the beverages and ensure recycling.

    • J__o__h__n

      The deposits should be repealed.  It is a pain to have to return bottles instead of including them with the rest of my recycling.  Having bums tear open the bags in my dumpster isn’t helping the environment unless increasing Boston’s rat population counts. 

      • Guest

        John, I disagree with you on this topic. For example, we have an excellent recycling center next to our only grocery store. I do not drink any sodas but I recycle my water jugs and make about $15 per recycle trip. Granted, I drink a great deal of Spring Water and use it to make coffee and for cooking.

        Since we do not have trash pickup out here in the “woods,” we all have to handle our own trash. Consequently, we have a state of the arts trash center with an excellent recycle center in addition to the one next to the grocery store.

        I pay extra for these containers, so I want to recoup my expenses. Each time I leave the trash center, I make more money on my recyclables then I spend on my trash. It’s a good idea. Sorry for your inconvenience, though.

        • J__o__h__n

          Maybe rural and urban trash/recycling needs different policies. 

      • SLP

         I do agree with you in part. We drink very little soda (all diet) and it’s not worth saving the bottles for a special trip to the store recycling. I happily recycle all of my household plastics every week at my local transfer station–deposit bottles not excluded.

      • Joanna

         Have you seen the giant islands of trash in our oceans?  I can’t imagine anyone who has ever seen images of this mess being against any legislation which would reduce it.  It is hurting wildlife and will make a walk on the beach a walk through bits of plastic rather than sand very soon…  I don’t have a specific site to reccommend, but you could probably Google trash in our oceans if you want to see it… Pretty disturbing!

        • J__o__h__n

          I said we should recycle bottles with the rest of our recycling not throw it out.  How do additional drives to return bottles, which could easily be recycled curbsite, aid the environment? 

    • Guest

      Thanks for the education. I am not aware of how people use food stamps but I agree that people should not be able to buy junk “anything” with food stamps. Sodas are nothing but junk food, as well as, sugar. For me, sugar is for making hummingbird food.

  • SLP

    What about sodas? How do they factor into the nutrition and tax debates?

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