Column: Soda – to tax or not to tax?

Between the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates, a difference has arisen over the merits of taxing soft drinks. (Rich Renomeron/Creative Commons)

Between the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates, a difference has arisen over the merits of taxing soft drinks. This issue gained relevance after Bernie Sanders came out in opposition to the Philadelphia mayor’s plan to use a soda tax to pay for a universal preschool program in the city.

He stated that although he supported the goal of ensuring that every family has access to high quality, affordable preschool and childcare, he believed that the tax was regressive in that it would disproportionately affect the lower and middle classes. Hillary Clinton has come out in support of the soda tax, saying, “We need universal pre-school. And if that’s a way to do it, that’s how we should do it.” 

I think it is important to point out that this tax is being introduced with good intentions on several fronts. First, there is the purpose of providing universal preschool for the city of Philadelphia. Preschool is very beneficial to young children. It promotes social and emotional development, allows for kids to get a head start in multiple academic areas, and is an all-around opportunity for growth.

Having universal preschool also benefits the less fortunate. Costs can range from $372 to $1,100 per month, making preschool an opportunity effectively denied to those in the lower class and even some middle class families. Having universal preschool provides children from all backgrounds with the same educational opportunities, opportunities they should not be denied just because of the financial situation of their family. 

The soft drink tax also serves as a health initiative. Incentivizing people to consume non-soda beverages pushes people towards a healthier lifestyle. Soda has high levels of sugar and its consumption can contribute to dissolving tooth enamel, an increased risk for heart disease and obesity. In contrast, consuming alternative beverages such as milk or orange juice confers important health benefits.  

Despite these positive effects, it is true that the tax could disproportionately affect lower income families. The fact of the matter is that soda is much cheaper than the vast majority of healthy beverages, in large part due to the low cost of sugar. If you are someone who is living paycheck to paycheck you generally are more concerned with putting food on the table than worrying about making healthy choices.

If soda is the cheapest option, then you can expect people will choose it over other options out of necessity.

Once a tax is imposed it could be a difficult burden to bear, depending on the size of the tax and how much of the cost is passed onto consumers. The proposed tax is 3 cents per ounce on soda distributors, so proponents are calling it a corporate tax. However, it is naïve to think that companies will bear the total cost of this tax.

Berkeley, California is currently the only city with a similar tax, at 1 cent per ounce. Because there is only one example, estimates of the amount that gets passed to consumers is anywhere from 25 percent to 70 percent, depending on the study. Regardless, the prices of soft drinks will increase; American companies aren’t known for their charitable nature.

If the lower figure is used, a two liter bottle of soda in Philadelphia will go up about 50 cents. A two liter bottle of soda usually cost between $1 and $2, so even using the low estimate it is a sizable increase in its cost. If soda is the cheapest beverage commercially available, then a tax of potentially 50 percent or more may be asking too much, even for universal preschool. Until more data is available on the effects of such a policy, any soda taxes should start out smaller, around 1 cent an ounce or less. 

If a soda tax can be structured in such a way where the desired outcome can be produced without placing an undue burden on low income taxpayers then it could be an effective action to take.

However, universal preschool may prove too much of a price to pay for some taxpayers, depending on how much companies will raise soda prices to offset the tax. Until more information is available, there are multiple other ways politicians can explore funding universal preschool and helping citizens live healthier lives.


Jacob Kowalski is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.