Student Note | Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages to Combat the Costs of Obesity: City-Level Taxes and How the Federal Government Should Complement Them

Meaghan Jerrett


In many parts of the world, the struggle to procure enough food for survival has been replaced with a food landscape of abundance. This shift means that many people now have more than enough access to food. Industrialized agriculture has helped alleviate hunger, but it has also led to the creation of calorie-rich but nutrient-poor foods. Coupled with an increase in sedentary lifestyles (permissible through dramatically changed workplace needs), industrialized agriculture means that society is now grappling with the fallout of overconsumption and resulting obesity. Governments are attempting to discern the most appropriate, and effective, role to play in addressing the costs of an increasingly overweight populace. State control over food choice seems dangerous and draconian, so government actors have gravitated towards less invasive methods of impacting consumption patterns in order to mitigate costs.

Taxing provides a middle path between stick and carrot; it creates a mild burden on consumption of certain items, while producing revenue that can fund desirable, and often relevant, projects and programming. Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) can be a precise way to address the negative consequences of obesity. Cities and municipalities are implementing taxes on SSBs locally, where taxation is feasible, appropriate, and sustainable to legal challenges. Local legislators who wish to implement taxes on SSBs can draw on the experiences of other cities in the United States that have already executed such taxes, while the federal government can shift spending to complement the policy objectives behind local SSB taxes. SSB taxes may provide a policy solution to help manage the obesity epidemic in the United States.

This article will discuss the background health problems stemming from increased obesity in the United States. It will then survey the role the sin tax has historically played as a policy solution to citizen activity that results in systemic societal costs and introduce the existing SSB taxes that have been implemented. It will examine three critiques of SSB taxes and find resolutions for them when carefully-designed taxes are implemented on the local level. It will conclude by turning to the appropriate role for the federal government within this context.