Surcharge on sweets may not trim many waists
By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / January 31, 2009
When Governor Deval Patrick proposed a 5 percent premium on sugary treats this week, his administration presented it as a sin tax with a bonus: Imposing such a levy, a briefing paper pledged, "is a critical first step in discouraging the consumption of these empty calories."
But there is little evidence that an extra nickel or two for a bottle of soda or a bar of chocolate would significantly dampen demand for products blamed for fueling the nation's obesity epidemic.
Chicago researchers who studied the effects of state tax policies on consumer behavior concluded that modest fees on candy and soft drinks produce equally modest effects on waistlines and consumption.
"If the state's purpose of a 5 percent tax is to drive down the obesity rate, then that's an overstatement of what it's likely to do," said Frank Chaloupka, director of the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The bottom line is that the taxes are really too low to significantly affect obesity."
States big and small, from California to Rhode Island, tack a surcharge onto soft drinks and candy. In all, 33 states had sales taxes on soda or candy as of Jan. 1, 2008, the Chicago researchers found, with most rates hovering between 4 and 6 percent.
John Auerbach, the Massachusetts public health commissioner, acknowledged in an interview that the main objective of the sugar tax is revenue generation, not behavior modification.