A study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs found extra taxes on soda do not have a direct impact on obesity rates.
The lead researcher on the study, Jason Fletcher, said while the taxes do affect how much people drink, they do not have an impact on caloric intake. The study focused on soda taxes implemented in the 1990s in states like Ohio and Arkansas.
Dr. Zorba Pastor at Dean Clinic in Oregon said even if people drink less pop, they’re likely reaching for beverages with the same amount of sugar and calories, especially when it comes to children.
“Kids can go and drink other sugary drinks, like grapefruit juice or orange juice that basically have just as many calories as soda,” Pastor said.
Pastor pointed out obesity has actually increased since the introduction of diet soda, and there is something about soft drinks that gets people hooked.
“I think people become kind of habituated and addicted to soda,” Pastor said.
Taxes on other substances people tend to get hooked on have proven successful, like taxes on tobacco products.
Health First Wisconsin’s Executive Director Maureen Busalacchi fought for those taxes in the Badger state, and said the efforts to lower tobacco use have been "wildly successful."
“There is no safe level of tobacco use, period,” Busalacchi said. “And as I said, soda consumption on a moderate basis from time to time is not really problematic.”
Busalacchi said there are too many alternatives to soft drinks to see a real health impact, while there are no true alternatives to tobacco. In addition, the price of a pack of cigarettes went up enough to discourage people from purchasing them. She said the soda taxes the study looked at were too low to deter soft drink consumers.
Busalacchi said any legislation to tax sugary beverages should also include an education component.
“If you're going to raise the price of the tax, we also need to make sure there's assistance for folks, so they understand why they might want to make a different choice,” Busalacchi said. “We're working with our kids to make sure they understand what soda can do to you in large quantities.”
Pastor agreed the tax on soda would have to be significant to make a dent in the obesity problems that surround over consumption.
“When you look at tobacco, there's no doubt when you increase the price of tobacco prices, that has really made a difference in curbing consumption,” Pastor said. “But if you really wanted to curb consumption on sugary soda, you would need more than a five cent tax. You'd probably have to add a 25 or 50 cent tax or a dollar tax to actually do it.”
Fletcher said there are no signs of Wisconsin adopting a soda tax, but legislators in Illinois are considering charging extra for all sugary drinks. He suggested lawmakers and health experts rethink the meaning of success when it comes to a soda tax, considering the decrease in soda consumption as a victory rather than striving for a reduction in obesity.
Fletcher also said this study calls for a deeper evaluation of what might work to bring down obesity rates and evaluate more comprehensive strategies for that.
Busalacchi agreed, saying the approach to combating should be more holistic than just eliminating soda.
“We have a ways to go in figuring out how do we best do this, and like I said, I think focusing on the positive is a great first step. I don't know if it's going to solve our problems,” Busalacchi said.