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Britain will soon tax sugary drinks. Whether you love that idea or hate it, you’ve got to give the Brits credit: They’ve designed a better version of the tax than any other government.

Beginning in 2018, the United Kingdom will charge the equivalent of 0.75 cents per ounce for drinks that contain more than 3 teaspoons of sugar in an 8-ounce serving and a full cent per ounce for drinks with more than 5 teaspoons per serving. These tax levels are similar to the penny per ounce that Berkeley, California levies on sugary drinks.

Britain’s innovation is in the tiering. Rather than hit all sugary drinks with the same tax, as Berkeley does, Britain has three levels. Drinks with little sugar aren’t taxed at all, drinks with moderate sugar face one tax rate, and drinks with lots of sugar face a higher one. As a result, many flavored waters will escape any tax, slightly sweet iced teas will face a low tax, and regular soda will usually bear the higher tax.

This three-tier structure will encourage people and businesses to favor lower-sugar drinks over sweeter ones. That’s important because sugar content differs significantly. If you believe sugar is harmful, you should want people not only to cut back on sugary drinks, but to switch to less sugary options. And you’d want businesses to devote product development, marketing, and pricing efforts to lower-sugar options.

Linking the tax to sugar content encourages businesses to do that. Indeed, Britain is delaying the new tax until 2018 to give beverage companies time to avoid or lower the tax by reformulating their products.

Britain’s tiering is far from perfect. Why do the tax rates differ by only a third, when the difference in sugar content is often larger? Why not have more tiers—or even directly tax sugar content? Those are important questions. But they don’t diminish the fact that Britain’s approach makes much more sense than taxing sugary drinks uniformly, as Berkeley (a penny per ounce), Mexico (a peso per liter), and almost all other soda-taxing governments do. Those taxes—and similar ones designed as sales taxes—do nothing to encourage consumers and businesses to favor lower-sugar drinks. (Hungary has a simpler two-tier system; only drinks in the same range as Britain’s upper tier get taxed.)

Soda taxes are at best a limited tool for improving nutrition. Well-designed taxes can discourage consumption of sugary drinks, which clearly contribute to obesity, diabetes, and other ills. But health depends on many factors, not just the amount of sugar one drinks. People may switch to other, tax-free alternatives like juice that also have lots of sugar. Soda taxes are regressive, falling more heavily on lower-income families. And they raise controversial questions about the role of government.

Given those concerns, reasonable people differ over whether these taxes make sense at all. If governments choose to enact them, however, they should target sugar content rather than drink volume. Britain’s tiered tax is a welcome step in that direction.

 

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With obesity and diabetes at record levels, many public health experts believe governments should tax soda, sweets, junk food, and other unhealthy foods and drinks. Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, and Mexico have such taxes. So do Berkeley, California and the Navajo Nation. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is waging a high-profile campaign to get Britain to tax sugar, and the Washington Post has endorsed the same for the United States.

Do such taxes make sense? My Urban Institute colleagues Maeve Gearing and John Iselin and I explore that question in a new report, Should We Tax Unhealthy Foods and Drinks?

Many nutrients and ingredients have been suggested as possible targets for taxes, including fat, saturated fat, salt, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine. Our sense, though, is that only sugar might be a plausible candidate.

Sugar in foods and drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes, and other conditions. By increasing the price of products that contain sugar, taxes can get people to consume less of them and thus improve nutrition and health. Health care costs would be lower, and people would live healthier, longer lives. Governments could put the resulting revenue to good use, perhaps by helping low-income families or cutting other taxes.

That’s the pro case for a sugar tax, and it’s a good one. But policymakers need to consider the downsides too. Taxes impose real costs on consumers who pay the tax or switch to other options that may be more expensive, less enjoyable, or less convenient.

That burden would be particularly large for lower-income families. We find that a US tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be highly regressive, imposing more than four times as much burden, relative to income, on people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution as on those in the top fifth.

Another issue is how well sugar consumption tracks potential health costs and risks. If you are trying to discourage something harmful, taxes work best when there is a tight relationship between the “dose” that gets taxed and the “response” of concern. Taxes on cigarettes and carbon are well-targeted given tight links to lung cancer and climate change, respectively. The dose-response relationship for sugar, however, varies across individuals depending on their metabolisms, lifestyle, and health. Taxes cannot capture that variation; someone facing grave risks pays the same sugar tax rate as someone facing minute ones. That limits what taxes alone can accomplish.

In addition, people may switch to foods and drinks that are also unhealthy. If governments tax only sugary soda, for example, some people will switch to juice, which sounds healthier but packs a lot of sugar. It’s vital to understand how potential taxes affect entire diets, not just consumption of targeted products.

A final concern, beyond the scope of our report, is whether taxing sugar is an appropriate role for government. Some people strongly object to an expanding “nanny state” using taxes to influence personal choices. Others view taxes as acceptable only if individual choices impose costs on others. Eating and drinking sugar causes such “externalities” when insurance spreads resulting health care costs across other people. Others go further and view taxes as an acceptable way to reduce “internalities” as well, the overlooked harms consumers impose on themselves.

Policymakers must weigh all those concerns when considering whether to tax sugar. If they decide to do so, they should focus on content, not proxies like drink volume or sales value. Mexico, for example, taxes sweetened drinks based on their volume, a peso per liter. That encourages consumers to reduce how much they drink but does nothing to encourage less sugary alternatives. That’s a big deal because sugar content ranges enormously. Some drinks have less than 10 grams of sugar (2 ½ teaspoons) per serving, while others have 30 grams (7 ½ teaspoons) or more. Far better would be a content-based tax that encourages switching from the 30-gram drinks to the 10-gram ones.

Focusing on sugar content would bring another benefit. Most sugar tax discussions focus on changing consumer choices. But consumers aren’t in this alone. Food and beverage companies and retailers determine what products they make, market, and sell. Taxing drink volumes or the sales value of sugary food gives these companies no incentive to develop and market lower-sugar alternatives. Taxing sugar content, however, would encourage them to explore all avenues for reducing the sugar in what we eat and drink.

Note: I updated this post on December 15.

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