More Taxing Decisions

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 21, 2010    •    686 Views

Would you support a penny an ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages? According to the NY Times and The New England Journal of Medicine, the idea is becoming increasingly attractive to many municipalities. By putting on our economic glasses, we can better decide whether to support it.

First, we can ask whether society should be compensated for the cost it experiences from unhealthy behavior. Any cost absorbed by an “innocent” third party because of someone else’s behavior is called an externality. The tax would then be a payback. 

To make up our minds, we can also assess the cost and benefit of the decision to tax sugary beverages. Diminishing obesity, increased intake of healthier foods, and decreased risk for diabetes, are several of the benefits associated with the impact of a soda tax. As suggested by one study, a 10% tax would decrease consumption by 7.8%. Meanwhile, on the cost side, we have the impact on manufacturers, on jobs, and the expense of implementing the tax. Some people believe the biggest cost, though, is the freedom we lose.

Finally, we can focus on the tax itself. Opponents point out that the tax is regressive because when everyone pays the same amount, the less affluent feel a larger burden. By contrast, supporters ask us to focus on the revenue’s destination. If the soda tax becomes a “benefits received” levy, then the money would be destined for treatment of sugary drink related maladies.

The Economic Lesson

Named after economist Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), Pigovian taxes are levied on undesirable activities called negative externalities. At best, they eliminate the activity. But even when less successful, the revenue that is generated can be used productively.

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