Humiliation, the soda tax, and deadweight loss

Catherine Rampell’s excellent column considers the case for a soda tax in Britain.  Here is one bit:

Why not just target the output, rather than some random subset of inputs? We could tax obesity if we wanted to. Or if we want to seem less punitive, we could award tax credits to obese people who lose weight. A tax directly pegged to reduced obesity would certainly be a much more efficient way to achieve the stated policy goal of reducing obesity.

Of course, “fat taxes,” even when framed as weight-loss tax credits, seem pretty loathsome. Why is . . . unclear.

We tax soda instead, even though that is less effective, for instance because soda drinkers may substitute into other sugary beverages.  We are unwilling to humiliate the obese by taxing them directly, and so our chosen policies do less to help…the obese.  (That’s assuming that attempting to shift their consumption behavior helps them at all, which is debatable.)  As Robin Hanson has told us many times, politics isn’t about policy…


ahh, public shaming - for when fiscal libertarians want to flex their social authoritarianism. what a charming combination.

"fiscal libertarians" ???

This topic is about one thing, and it isn't about health, weight reduction, nor budgetary matters. It is about one group of smug elites looking down at their social inferiors. Pop is something that only low-status people drink, and the elites want to demonstrate that they are morally superior.

Indeed. Note in particular that "fruit juices and milky drinks will be excluded," according to the Telegraph. In other words, the drinks that the Right People drink and give to their kids.

"Healthy" food frequently just means high-status. A Chipotle burrito is considered much healthier than a KFC double-down, even though the latter is mostly lean protein with few refined carbohydrates. A granola bar, which is a glorified candy bar, is considered super-healthy because yuppie cyclists eat it all the time. Visualize a healthy grocery shopper, the cart's filled with fresh produce. Frozen vegetables are not only cheaper, but usually have more vitamins and nutrients.

It's simple sugars that cause the problem, whether they're from soda or fruit juice. Apple juice and even orange juice are as bad as soda containing the same level of simple sugars. (Orange juice is packed with sugar, but it doesn't taste very sweet because of the acid.) Artificially sweetened soda would be better than all of them.

Do you think elites would support higher taxes on non-light beer? I would doubt it.

"Do you think elites would support higher taxes on non-light beer?"

Plenty of "elites" drink beer. Its just made by craft breweries and costs twice what mass market beer costs.

Hard to tax some types of beer but not others.

There is a lower tax rate on craft beers. The definition of which has been stretched several times to allow for the growth of Sam Adams.

The beer tax should be based on the income of the purchaser.

I think it "can't" be about health for all the wrong reasons. On the one hand economists tend to think overweight people are choosing that preference rationally, hence no change required. On the other hand, anti-nannies don't want any help no matter what. So what's left?

No one to even talk about health, that's what. Or bounded rationality and weight. Etc.

The counter to that of course, and the obvious human condition is that we have both sweets industries and weight loss industries. Real humans can't decide (rationally) what they want to be, and so they try to be both. That is, big eaters of sweets, and fit.

They fail at their stated preferences. Do we help them or not?

"They fail at their stated preferences. Do we help them or not?"

Do we, the educated elite, treat the lower classes like children all the days of their lives...or not?

And before you answer, keep in mind that expert government dietary advice over recent decades has repeatedly proved to be *bogus* and even harmful (the food pyramid, low-fat, low-salt, low-cholesterol). And it looks entirely possible that the same is in this case -- a sugary soda tax that would push people to artificially-sweetened diet colas may be counterproductive for health as well. The problem with 'us' helping 'them' is not only is it an offensive idea in the first place, but also 'we' all too often don't know what the f*#K we're talking about.

Apparently a slight majority (51%) of adults want to lose weight. I am in that group, so it is "us" not "them." Corrected.

Apparently a slight majority (51%) of adults want to lose weight. I am in that group, so it is “us” not “them.” Corrected.

Yes, this being the tail end of a cold, dark northern winter, I'm also not as fit as I was in the Fall or plan to be again when the weather improves. But I'm not the slightest bit interested in coercive 'help' from often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt government nutrition nannies.

Maybe the people who see 10 or 20 cents a day as "the coercive power of the state" are the ones reacting emotionally.

I don't think there's any need to be offended at a nudge. "Don't do drugs", for example, as compared to imprisoning people.

That having been said, it would be nice it the science, accounting for ways decisions tend to be made, were exceedingly clear before proceeding to a nudge or even an economic incentive. As you mention, people are likely to switch to diet sodas if the sugared ones are taxed (yeah, right, like someone who wants a soda is going to choose fruit juice or milk instead ... NOT), and I've read stuff that suggests that diet sodas are even worse than sugared ones, because the sweetness triggers a response that doesn't get fulfilled and people tend to overeat after.

Shouldn't fat pigs be shamed a little? Rather than making them proud of their sickening lifestyle choice?

It's not that politics isn't about policy. It's that politics isn't ONLY about policy. Policies can have a trade-off between effectiveness and societal norms. That doesn't mean it's not about policy at all, just that the type of policies that can be implemented are bounded.

(( “fat taxes,” even when framed as weight-loss tax credits, seem pretty loathsome."))

The overall U.S. tax code is loathsome and complex enough already... without also using it to punish/reward personal behaviors. Tax Policy has strict bounds, if officials choose to act legally.

Sin taxes are fundamentally unjust. They are non-judicial "punishments" imposed by legislators and regulators against individuals without the slightest hint of constitutionality or judicial due process.

The U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions expressly prohibit government imposition of individual "punishments" without judicial due process and recognition of individual rights to a fair hearing and defense of the alleged crimes. Victims of fat-taxes and sin taxes have a right to trial by jury --- a minor detail blithely dismissed by all levels of U.S. government.

At least you're allowed to grow your own sugar, whereas such options do not exist for those who toy in many non-sugar drugs which have demonstrably less negative effect on health than sugar. Damn puritans ... if it's fun, they want to outlaw it.

As per usual, Mencken put it best. "Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy."

Fat people are already "taxed" for their choices. They have to haul around all that extra mass, fit themselves into places which would be more roomy if they were smaller and be unattractive compared to their thinner selves.

Do economists really think an increase in the price of soda will make a difference? It seems so tiny compared to the other hardships they endure.

What a ridiculous comment. Cigarette taxes have worked fantastically. Just because something has clear downsides, doesn't mean that adding more of them won't reduce the behavior.

Did you bother reading the article? They are talking about a tax that is less than a dollar per two liters, so that would make it $3 instead of $2 for what should be 6 servings. Cigarettes are already expensive (about $5/pack in low tax states) in higher tax states they are about $10/pack. So something already expensive becomes out of reach. Hardly anybody thinks taxes alone account for all of the reduction in smoking--there have been endless PSAs, and bans from smoking in offices, restaurants, bars and aircraft. Finally, smoking is binary--if you stop you gain 100% of the health benefits. Obesity does not depend on soda alone and healthy -weight people are not harming anyone by drinking soda.

That's an interesting claim. Cigarette taxes are huge and I would think they do matter, but I wonder if the data shows how big a factor they are. eg, it seems to me that poor people are more likely to smoke and that those who never smoke is higher among those with money than those without. I can't find data to show whether that's true or not in a quick google search, but that's my impression. If correct, wouldn't that suggest that the taxes haven't been that important? It would suggest that price doesn't have as strong an effect on smoking rates than other factors and that taxes aren't an especially effective means of curbing smoking.

Taxing someone on the size of their body seems loathsome, and "Why is...unclear." Only to an economist (by the way, if you're writing a column, isn't it kind of the job to think through all the unclear stuff until it's clear?). Given there is no scientific consensus about the causes of and cures for obesity, maybe we hold back on penalising people for it just yet.

"there is no scientific consensus about the causes of and cures for obesity"

Another AGW denier?

Almost all mammals are currently experiencing an obesity crisis. Including wild animals, and even lab animals feed carefully controlled diets. Anyone who claims to precisely know the cause of the obesity epidemic hasn't done enough research on it.

"there is no scientific consensus about the causes of and cures for obesity"

Yes there is. Obesity is fundamentally caused by an imbalance in intake (high calories) and outflow (not enough movement/exercise).

True, but how much will the efficiency of digestion, metabolism, locomotion vary? What adjustments will the body make to a change of intake or output?

Yeah, the reason this seems like why an obesity tax is loathsome. The reason to tax soda and not obesity is the same reason we tax cigarettes and not lung cancer. I mean it seems unfair to tax people who have lower metabolism, right? But taxing obesity would do that. This being said, I think the sugary drinks tax is pretty useless if you don't have corresponding taxes on other unhealthy life decisions that affect your weight. Setting up such a tax regime would be quite difficult.

" Obesity is fundamentally caused by an imbalance in intake (high calories) and outflow (not enough movement/exercise)"

No. Its not that simple:

Well it is if you believe in the Laws of Thermodynamics. But perhaps you prescribe to another religion.

By the laws of thermodynamics outflow includes defication. Food passes through, and the body takes things from it. How much it takes depends on a lot of factors. Body mass is not simple. Sure you can starve people to the 'correct' weight, but you don't know what other nutrients you are also depriving them of, and you don't know if you are making them healthier. There's no guarantee that an overweight person is getting all the nutrients they need either. The point is that things are far more complicated than the volume of food or calories taken in through the mouth.

"The point is that things are far more complicated than the volume of food or calories taken in through the mouth. "

Yes, Internal Combustion Engines are very complicated devices. But if you are gaining weight, you are taking in more calories than you are burning.

The only effective response is to reduce BTU intake and/or increase BTU output. I'm not saying those are easy from a human physiological point of view, but those are the only effective responses.

I presume you're a fatty-fat. Trust me, if you actually counted your calories and ate less than you burned, you'd lose weight.

This is as stupid as saying: "Trust me, if you actually moved you're legs at a faster race, you'd beat Usain Bolt in a sprint"

4 billion years of evolution have made hunger one of the most fundamental and irresistible feelings that an organism can experience. Free will is a myth when it comes to this. If your digestive and endocrine system decide that you need to eat, it doesn't matter what the pre-frontal cortex says, you *will* move heaven and earth to feed. Most of the obese experience the feeling of hunger far more often, and those feelings take much larger volumes of food to be satiated. One of the primary factors here is leptin resistance. A second major factor is gut flora composition.

(Before you try an ad hominem attack again, I'm 9% body fat and can nearly guarantee that I'm much fitter and have a much better body than you)

There are drugs to control this. One summer, I worked at a place where one client had an uncontrollable and endless urge to eat eat eat. So he (she? can't remember even, wasn't one of my charges) was administered a drug that prevented the impulse.

I'm not sure if they've developed a middle ground. It's hard to say that a hunger which is never satiated is better than never enjoying the satiation of hunger, but when eating is reduced to a robotic matter of survival this is presumably not that nice either.

No, fat people just need to crap as much as you do to remain thin and healthy. Do you think that food just goes in and all turns into fat, or does it all turn into hot air?

"fat taxes,” even when framed as weight-loss tax credits, seem pretty loathsome. Why is ... unclear."

Why loathsome? People have different metabolism rates and hunger signalling. This would be like posing an extra tax on people with learning disabilities or who often miss work due to illness. Why not kick and piss on a few homeless men while you're at it? It will give them an incentive to get their shit together.

I tend to think of it this way. If there is an element of unfreedom in any tax, why not have a sugar tax and reduce other taxes? Should the element of unfreedom not be roughly equal in both situations? For those inclined to tinkering in social engineering, offsetting the sugar tax by removing books (or whatever else you think is a social good) from VATs might be good. For those less inclined to tinkering, you could just increase the tax brackets by $50-100 a piece to make it revenue neutral (and maybe increase social welfare transfers by $2 a month or so).

Anyways, I think positive role models and positive motivation are much better than shaming. If you have a fat friend, you could speak of how great it feels to get in a little exercise at the gym. Shaming them might just lead them to retrench, thinking "yeah, I'm a fat slob who eats to much" and dig in for another large bag of potato chips in consideration of the hopelessness of it all. You've defined them. They are what you call them. It becomes them. Instead, do not discuss the fatness, discuss how they will feel better when they have more healthy habits.

Also, in some people, trying to shame them into changing their ways will lead to a stubborn refusal to even consider it for a second, preferring highly suboptimal perceived independence (in fact, enslavement by their previous habits and conditioning) rather than to submit themselves to the "tyranny" of social norms.

"Why not kick and piss on a few homeless men while you’re at it?"

I would support a tax credit for this.

"People have different metabolism rates and hunger signalling."

Maybe. But it's virtually impossible to be obese without eating processed foods. There were studies where they paid people to try to gain weight and it was all but impossible.

Sumo wrestlers have gotten pretty big without eating modern processed foods.

They also commit their day to eating.

Totally wrong. Read Gary Taubes' book. Lots of ways to be obese.

"Totally wrong because some guy said so."

Very useful.

Gary Taubes seems legit, but I don't think he would be a defender of processed foods. His concern with insulin and fat accumulation could very well tie into foods with a fast metabolic pathway to fat storage.

The fairly significant extent of the research doesn't lend itself to summary in a blog comment. The point is that processed foods are clearly not the only path to obesity and a cite to a good distillation of the science was provided.

Don't mean to Jan-troll, but a quick google search on Gary Taubes indicates that his crusade has been against the 90s conventional wisdom that dietary fats are the cause overweight and that instead the main driver of obesity is refined carbohydrates. In other words, Gary Taubes' work appears to support Cliff's contention that it is difficult to become obese without eating processed foods (which contain almost exclusively refined carbohydrates).

He goes through experiments and studies done long before processed foods were a part of people's diets, and obese people featured prominently in each study.

Yes, his main point is carbs are bad. Did not mean to give impression he supports processed foods or something. Maybe Cliff meant to say that carbs are the main problem?

"But it’s virtually impossible to be obese without eating processed foods."

That comment is a stretch. You could get fat off of a diet of milk, nuts, honey and meat.

My gf bought macadamia nuts, which I feared because they are very high in fat and calories. It turns out that eating a couple produces instant satiety. No danger having them in the house.

I think it's hard to eat a lot of calories in natural, especially raw foods, both in the quantity required, and the fact that you generally start feeling full.

Kraft Mac n' Cheese ... takes about a box to feel full.

We shouldn't punish murder either because some people have a different propensity / lower thresholds to commit violent crimes. Don't want to punish genetics, right?

See how ridiculous that sounds?

I'm pretty sure we can see the difference between things the negatively affect ourselves and those which are directly damaging to others. For example, I retain the right to bash my own head against the wall when people say retarded stuff, but if I start bashing other people's heads against the wall in such situations, a visit from the police is warranted.

The difference is that plenty of people eat whatever they want and stay skinny, so punishing obesity instead of eating habits is unfair. There is no corallary for this in your example. If people actually chose whether or not to be in situations that made them more likely to want to murder someone, then I actually would be more for punishing people for doing that instead of punishing them for the actual murder. If this seems confusing that's probably because trying to compare obesity and murder is not a useful exercise (no pun intended)

Or even just simply - taxing soda punishes people who happen to like soda.

Is there anyone who doesn't agree that many of our taxes (on income, investment, etc.) have negative economic effects? And yet people are whining that soda taxes won't have much of a positive effect? I'm not asking anyone to believe that creating this soda tax is going to lower any other taxes, but it's a small crack in the door to taxation that could be at least less distortionary, if not efficiency enhancing.

Well, soda taxes are pretty self-consciously about influencing behavior rather than raising revenue. So it stands to reason that they would be judged against their stated aims.

They are now but they don't have to be, and the effect could be multiplied by cutting harmful subsidies. IIRC, alcohol taxes were a major source of income in the early US. Obviously government has gotten tremendously larger since then but if enough "bads" are taxed (alcohol, added sugars, tobacco, marijuana, pollution, greenhouse gases) it could make a big dent in income taxes.

How could we tax obesity, given that we can't measure it? BMI is pure jnk. Even body fat percentage doesn't tell the whole story. I hate the idea of sugar taxes, because freedom, but at least sugar is something you can measure.


Maybe we could tax people for early deaths? Say with an estate tax rate that goes to zero as your age goes to 100?

Of course, that raises the question of what we're actually trying to accomplish. The government shouldn't care if you're fat. It should care if you impose costs on others. The fat impose costs on others through their healthcare (via insurance pooling or vast subsidy), so perhaps denying healthcare for the consequences of obesity makes sense.

This whole conversation seems absurd, which is perhaps suggestive that we should try hard to collectively stay out of the business of regulating fat.

So umm, charge fat people more for insurance duh.

That gets back to Noah's problem that "fat" is hard to measure.

Not that hard. Life insurance companies have no problem gauging your level of obesity and charging accordingly. You'd think medical insurance could do the same.

msgkings - Actuarial stuff is a lot easier than estimating health costs.

Also, I think people are a little bit less sensitive about having to reveal personal information which affects the size of your insurance payout on death for a given premium, as compared to revealing personal information which might strongly affect your ability to put off death through access to better medical insurance.

. The fat impose costs on others through their healthcare

I'd be pretty surprised if people who die relatively young actually do that.

It's probably not the dying young, it's the dialysis and cardiac care. The long-term expensive stuff. But yeah, I don't think I've ever seen it broken out, and it seems right to be skeptical.

"The fat impose costs on others through their healthcare (via insurance pooling or vast subsidy)"

But fat has also benefits to others in the social security (assuming that fat people die earlier); even in healthcare I am not sure if fat people create more costs - yes, they have more costs by year, but probably they also live few years.

Careless points that out too, and I agree that a good accounting would make sense.

I've never seen such a good accounting. I imagine it would step on many toes.

A similar argument can be made for smoking. If smokers die younger, maybe it saves social security money. I don't know the balance, but a large amount of medical expenses (not to mention long term care) occur near end of life - so we're all going to get there eventually. Will something that kills you faster actually "save" money over time?

Those end of life costs will merely occur sooner (and probably be more costly than a non-cancer, non-emphysema, non-heart disease individual), and the length of productive life shortened.

Cholesterol and glucose level tests along blood pressure tests are very cheap, less than $50. So, if BMI ($0) says obese, a sensible doctor would order these tests and get a better obesity assessment for the first time. However, obesity is not solved in the 1st visit to the doctor. Obesity treatment needs progress measurement and BMI can help to save those $50 in every progress assessment. An obese people is not going to transform into a pro NFL player.

What's wrong with body fat %? That seems like a pretty good measure, recognizing that nothing is perfect.

Lean mass is awfully important, too.

130 pounds and 10% fat is a lot less safe than 180 pounds and 10% fat. At least, depending on age and other risk factors. Remember that for much of your life you're more worried about infectious disease and trauma, and being bigger helps with that.

Unless you're over 6'3", the former is actually much more healthy than the latter

Evidence, please. There's no shortage of citations on the importance of lean body mass, so I would expect the opposite to be true. I.e., that the 180 pound guy would have a lower death rate than the 130 pound guy, assuming equal fatness.

Also, define healthy. Who would you pick for your sports team? If you're a girl, who would you pick as a boyfriend? Who would you rather be in a car crash, or with a case of pneumonia? There's more to health than probability of cardiac problems at 52.

And a 6'3" person who weighs 180 pounds is going to look dangerously thin, as if he were sick.

I'm 6'2" and 180lbs would put me into negative body fat numbers.

6'2" and 130 would be ridiculous. You'd make fashion models look big boned

I don't see why weight would affect the immune system unless you're annorexic or otherwise lack basic nutrition for the molecular building blocks needed for an immune response.

Lean body mass is actually a stronger predictor of mortality than body fat. The J-curve of BMI mortality, where very low BMI have high death rates is an artifact of the risk of low lean body mass. Mortality decreases monotonically with lean body mass and increases monotonically with body fat. There's no such thing as being under-fat or over-lean-weight. The healthiest physique by far is the bodybuilder with high BMI but very little fat.

Found the fatty!

As I've said on here before, I'm about 200 pounds and probably the most athletic person in the crowd. At my athletic peak, I was around 230. I don't do so well on BMI, but I could easily carry the doctor on a 2-mile run.

Besides, if you look up-thread, you'll find I'm hating on fat people. :)

BMI came in because no matter what, people know their approximate height and their approximate weight. So, a ratio. There are many better things to use, but the ALL require active testing. I mean, can you think of any other question to ask a random patient visiting for an annual physical? "How fast do you run a mile" is going to produce wild guesses for most.

A simple blood test and a 5-minute run in increasingly intensive increments while hooked up to a monitor well tell you ridiculously more than BMI. BMI is cheap and easy, but it's predictive power has huge limitations.

I don't see why such services need to be provided by medical professionals earning $100,000-200,000 per year. Why can't the local pharmacy implement such tests for $10-20 (or perhaps free, as a marketing ploy, since they will be almost guaranteed to get all the pharma sales related to any problems), with abnormal results to be flagged for review by one of those expensive medical professionals?

Life insurers routinely gauge people's fatness by measuring no more than height and weight. To the accuracy that the added risk of death can be determined, the tape measure and scale are good enough.

It depends on word choice, substitute "weight-loss tax credit" for "weight-loss financial incentive" and it becomes socially acceptable.......and it works.

Financial incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy: randomised controlled trial

Randomized Trial of Four Financial-Incentive Programs for Smoking Cessation

The former government in Canada introduced a fitness tax credit. Lucky for anyone who can afford to join a fitness centre or lives close enough to one - I read several estimates that showed basically no one was motivated by the credit, but that the people who already go to fitness centres used the tax credit. If you don't want to go to the gym, will an extra $10 a month change your mind? Not likely.

Their political opponents suggested it would be better to tax-and-spend and offer better publicly subsidized activities for children, such as through community centres. Of course, that would be ideologicaly heresy to the former government, as society is always freer after a tax cut than public program, never mind that the tax cuts they offered always accrued to people who could already afford the things they purported to incentivize.

Life is long, people with healthy habits today may have difficulties to keep that way tomorrow: children, disability, unemployment, etc, The tax credit may not motivate "new" people to exercise but keeping the motivated going in spite of life changes is already a gain. Put int the shoes of young people in their first job and first time renting. If this people keep fit instead of gaining 20 kg between 20 and 30 years old, it's a gain.

Probably would have a better effect with a sequence of super short radio clips reading something like "I feel like a KING after I work out - message brought to you by Health Canada."

I'd wager that many obese people would not go to the gym even if they wanted to, just because they'll feel out of place.
I have an exercise bike at home that I ride pretty much every day. It makes a big difference for me as being an "avoider of people" I'd prefer not to go to a gym.

For me having the bike around handy each day is a positive nudge - it makes it easier to exercise. Just like having a bag of chips in the house is a negative nudge - I'll end up eating them.

One other comment: Desk jobs are a contributor. The trend toward stand-up desks and walking desks would be beneficial for all imho.

I'm not advocating for tax breaks or similar, but some simple changes like having exercise equipment easily available, and changing work environments w/ standup or walking desks, could have a low cost/high impact result imho.

On your first point - I think this is suggestive that fat shaming could be very counterproductive. If they are so body conscious that they are embarassed to go to the gym, they will not go to the gym. Imaging which portrays fat people at the gym in a postiive light would probably be more effective than body images which are essentially unattainable for people who do not make fitness the numbre one priority in their life.

Obesity is rampant on one side of my family, and each and nearly every instance of those who have succeeded in bringing down their weight and maintaining it was VERY simple - lots of walking and marginally improved discipline on poor dietary habits (e.g., a small piece of cake is enough, as is the small portion of ice cream).

This is a classic tension in managerial reporting: you can hold people accountable for their outputs, which are choices largely under their control but which you don't directly care about, or for their outcomes, which are influenced by outputs along with other uncontrollable forces, but which are what you really care about. These definitions come from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board's project on Service Effort and Accomplishment, which you can read about in What Counts and What Gets Counted (free pdf).

In this case, drinking soda is an output, while obesity is an outcome. If you hold people accountable for soda consumption they will do less of it, but you might not get what you want. If you hold people accountable for obesity, you end up quite likely rewarding and punishing people for uncontrollable influences, like metabolism and wealth. This is a classic tradeoff with the right choice depending heavily on the specific circumstances. I'm not sure how much it helps to frame this in terms of humiliation, though perhaps it is humiliating to be held accountable for influences outside your control, in addition to the usual economic concerns.

"Humiliation" depends on everyone liking their weight, and not wanting assistance.

Thanks! I was looking for that paper earlier today but couldn't remember the title well enough. Perfect timing.

Because it's much easier to tax the soda-makers than the fat people. Taxing people by weight means herding them into weigh-stations once a year, stripping them almost naked, weighing them, and then demanding payment. Good luck enforcing that.

On second thoughts, our airports already manage most of that....

"On second thoughts, our airports already manage most of that"

Sadly correct.

At root, the argument is about whether taxes should raise money to fund government in the most equitable way possible, or whether their purpose is (or should be) to nudge citizens into making "better" choices.

(Or perhaps taxes exist primarily to legally expropriate your neighbor's property, as in "an election is an auction in goods which have not yet been stolen.")

So many creative ways to use taxes: to steal, to nudge, to punish. The fight over the purpose and uses of taxes can only intensify as government inexorably grows and grows and grows ...

And all that juicy complexity provides a nice living to some of us. Call it fiscal stimulus and walk away. Just walk away. ?

"We tax soda instead, even though that is less effective, for instance because soda drinkers may substitute into other sugary beverages."

Soda is the low-lying "fruit" of weight loss, with lots of calories and no nutritional value. To say that we don't have a perfect understanding of how calories translate into weight gain/loss doesn't mean we don't know that calories have an important role. And while substitution effects may not be perfect, some of that depends on how the tax is written, and marginal benefits come from small steps . . .

You mean if Hillary actually was charged with a crime and had to do jail time maybe politicians would not be cavalier about the law?

Or that the VA administrators be charged with criminal negligence when their incompetence led to bad outcomes? It might actually help the situation?

Or the IRS and other departments faced having their heads blown off when they seize cash from otherwise legitimate businesses?

Or are consequences only for people who we don't like, who are somewhat disgusting? Ooh, fat people are ugly, we have to use the blunt instrument of government to remove this awful sight from before my exquisite eyes.

Let's assume that the model is more complex. That we can pool obese people into two categories:

One group is obese because they make very bad dietary decisions. They may potentially not be aware of those decisions being unhealthy. Regardless, raising prices should influence them into different dietary behaviors. Of course they could drink juice or sports drinks or alcohol which would all be worse. For this group, a tax on obesity would have an effect, because that would increase the price of obesity driving goods.

Now, the other group still exists: Obese people who have aged, have metabolic syndromes, thyroid problems, injuries that inhibit an active lifestyle. For these folks, obesity may result regardless of their dietary choices. More simply, this group's response to obesity is more inelastic than the dietary obese. For this group, a tax on obesity is more effective at generating tax revenues but inferior in affecting the obesity levels.

The reality is more complex than this, of course (diet sodas are taxed...which itself is an interesting thing to discuss), but a simple increase in complexity exposes a stronger argument for taxing sodas over taxing broad obesity.

Good analysis, but I think the size of the tax might factor into how risky it is. If it is a nudge without being a burden, it might be justified on that basis.

In Britain "The price of a Coca Cola should go up by about 12 cents, it appears."

Assuming 1-2 sodas per day, 12 to 24 cents per day?

I think that this is all about psychological impacts rather than anything rationally economic. And political railing, of course.

The latest Time magazine had an article on "The Exercise Myth". It showed that science says exercise to lose weight is overrated--far more important is diet (you can do the math, just go online to those calorie burning websites, enter your weight, sport, etc and see how few calories you will burn in 1 hour--typically about three apples worth).

Further, if you exercise a lot, your metabolism changes so your body burns calories slower, so you can't lose weight exercising.

Thus, a tax on soda is good, since a tax on fat people would be discriminatory since perhaps these fat people cannot lose weight despite not drinking any soda (i.e., maybe they eat lots of salad with rich salad dressing). Plus, 'soda causes diabetes' so there are positive spillovers to taxing soda.

That said, I personally have the body of a 30 year old despite being middle aged since I have crazy strong metabolism, so I am against taxing soda. I stopped running 7k a day about a year ago (in about 35 minutes average) since I have a chicken farm here in the Philippines, and I regret it, since chicken farming is tough (I stepped on a rock the other day and now must go to a podiatrist since it hurts so bad).

And Mexican Coke tastes better. Here in the Philippines, they think Gatorade (which is rather not that good for you) is a health drink btw.

Gatorade ain't so bad. Probably better than juice

I agree Gatorade (which I drink) is better than orange juice, but probably inferior to water. But the low-carb version is better IMO than Asian sugary imitations like "Pocari Sweat" (South Korean attempt at Gatorade).

"enter your weight, sport, etc and see how few calories you will burn in 1 hour–typically about three apples worth)."

I run about 7.5 miles in an hour and the MapMyRun calculator says I burned about 1000 calories. That seems like a significant amount to me.

The whole point of the soda tax is to pin blame for a perceived social problem on a convenient target. Even if it was known that the tax increased obesity.

The idea is to find a few witches and punish them. That violence unites the remainder, in their own perception, for a while.

Playing devil's advocate, what about time-inconsistent preferences. People generally don't want to be fat and already pay a social and health penalty for doing so. So how much more does a tax on obesity at the end of the year change things?

Taxing foods that contribute disproportionately to obesity sidesteps the time-inconsistency issue by forcing consumers to pay the tax prior to consuming so that they realize the financial benefit from making the healthful choice now, instead of maybe realizing months later.

It's hard to think of a more poorly designed tax than one aimed at a product which is already heavily subsidized.

heh, good point. let's drop the corn subsidy and work it that way.

That would be far more logical.

+1 to everyone in this thread. I'm not sold on the tax, but let's see if we can first stop subsidizing it.

Lots of pros and cons on soda taxes. Here is a newly updated slideshow I have posed that you can use as a basis for classroom discussion of a soda tax--covers elasticity, consumer and producer surplus, and deadweight loss.

Deadweight pun intended...or bun.

Obesity is merely a proxy for health outcomes, much as soda is a proxy for obesity. And indeed one can develop food-consumption related illness without being obese. Wouldn't the most efficient solution be taxing people for adverse health outcomes, or not subsidizing them?

I don't mean to suggest that is the correct outcome. But the immediate equating of obesity with ill health is more socially than scientifically motivated; there is a correlation, but it starts well beyond what we tend to think of as "overweight."

Or we could just tax the sugar, whatever it's form.

Instead, we subsidize it.

Poor people have a hard time judging the relation between inputs and outputs, and planning for the future. Just like it's more efficient to pay children to read rather than pay them for good grades in English class, it's better to tax inputs rather than obesity.

I can't tell whether Rampell is being deliberately vague on the matter or genuinely hasn't considered that A) obesity has many causes, not all of which are easily helped by the affected individual, and B) fatness and poor health are not synonyms, and C) drinking too much soda doesn't necessarily make you fat — but it is linked to bone density loss, heart disease, and diabetes in people of all weights, as well as to obesity. I don't think her argument gains anything by oversimplifying the consequences of excessive soda drinking.

Besides, isn't it clear enough that taxing soda is not meant to rid society of fat people so much as to weaken inducements to an unhealthy behavior that happens to be a profit center for restaurants, and therefore something they push? Taxing fatness would capture a lot of obese people in good health and miss a lot of people who keep the weight off while still guzzling risk factors for expensive ailments.

Even granting that a hypothetical person whose goal is simply to get fat could turn around and find other ways to do so. I don't think that adequately describes any of the health issues involved, and it certainly doesn't describe a significant number of Americans.

Taxing the soda is just the most efficient, though not most precise, and administratively simple way to target the problem without causing a bunch of unintended consequences that will piss off other stakeholders.

"Taxing the soda is just the most efficient,"

No it's not. It's not efficient at all. It penalizes soda drinkers regardless of their obesity. And it unfairly targets sodas. Why is soda a bigger obesity target than candy bars?

It's just a silly, PC tax to make some people feel good at the expense of the hoi polloi.

What "expense" are we talking about? 10 or 20 cents per day?

That may not be a huge harm to get the message across that sodas are pure calories.

(One piece of hard candy has 12 calories. You'd have to suck 18 of them to get as many calories as one 20 oz soda.)

If it's about getting a message across, why not do it directly, like we do on alcohol and cigarette containers?

Maybe you know more than I, but don't we do both tax and warning on alcohol and cigarettes?

Maybe a soda is roughly as "bad" as a lite beer, and should be taxed similarly, and strong beer, wine, distilled spirits progressively more. Perhaps soda and lite beer should have mild guidance, stronger brews more?

It would also be free and leave 100% choice in the consumer's hands.

I imagine Coke and Pepsi already have handy binders full of messaging strategies to defend against such possibilities, perhaps including ready-to-roll advertising concepts and lobbying lists.

"(One piece of hard candy has 12 calories. You’d have to suck 18 of them to get as many calories as one 20 oz soda.)"

Great, if most people confined their candy intake to one piece of hard candy.

What is the candy bar comparison?

Serious answers: 1) hard candy is underrated. 2) the behavioral aspect of a candy bar vs a soda is important. 3) people probably consciously think that a candy bar is candy. 4) many people probably just consider soda "a drink." 5) a combo meal does not include a large snickers bar

Calories and fitness is proving much more complicated than expected, but a combo meal is definitely sliding more calories past people's expectations.

anon - yeah, that's the really big thing. Not only is soda empty calories, but it's hidden calories. You could pack on an extra 500-1000 calories a day just by drinking sodas instead of water half of the time.

They could require softdrink producers to put the number of calories in 1 inch fonts on cans, 2 inch fonts on 2L bottles, for example.

As discussed above, there doesn't seem to be a clear reason for soda to be singled out in this regard. So if there is a "message" to be gotten across, it would appear to be either either an underserved or a useless one.

Maybe the real message is to mind your own business.

Some people would tax whiskey and milk at the same rate, but those people are outliers.

"(One piece of hard candy has 12 calories. You’d have to suck 18 of them to get as many calories as one 20 oz soda.) "

Sometimes you seem incapable of engaging in honest debate. I specifically said "candy bars", which tend to have around 200 calories. Instead, you substituted hard candy, in a misleading attempt to further your argument.

Maybe I just have more respect for the audience, and their ability to understand what we both are saying.

Again, seriously: How many times does the average office worker specifically "buy candy", and how many times do they buy "a drink" that does, as you say, have similar calories?

Watts, you're pretending to not understand the differences in prevalence and volume of soda candy bar consumption and their relative roles in the obesity epidemic.

"Watts, you’re pretending to not understand the differences in prevalence and volume of soda candy bar consumption and their relative roles in the obesity epidemic. "

Then why not recommend taxing all high calorie foods at the same rate? The tax paid would then exactly match the prevalence of consumption.

@Watts, a case can be made for doing something like that, but it gets very hard to administer given how many foods are out there--you'd need to determine which of the thousands of products on a grocery store shelf is "high calorie." And could it be applied at restaurants? I do think soda is a discrete category that is does a lot of the damage. In contrast to some other high-calorie foods, it has almost no nutritional value.

"you’d need to determine which of the thousands of products on a grocery store shelf is “high calorie.”

The USDA already does a very similar procedure in implementing the WIC program. So, that's pretty trivial.

"And could it be applied at restaurants?"

The Obama administration requirements for listing calorie information at restaurants already lays the ground work for this.

Maybe reviewing all possible foods wouldn't be that hard, but setting up the criteria would be a challenge (e.g. what portion size will they use, considering every food is different; what happens when the manufacturer changes the recipe; do you use the cooked calories or uncooked?).

The calorie labeling requirement is only for chains with 20+ locations, but the majority of eating and drinking establishments in the US are independent. However, even those chains with >20 locations are crying bloody murder about calorie labeling. Doing the same for the all independents would be virtually impossible, at least politically.

There is pretty good evidence that sodas are responsible for a lot of the growth in obesity. It's an appropriate target. It may not be "fair," and obviously doesn't target each individual, but is effective at population level. I'm guessing you wouldn't like any program or tax to address obesity if it has any effect on you. But just say that if it's what you mean.

Tax, tax, tax,.... One solution fits all in the liberal mind. Make all legal behavior illegal and start the fines.

Whether to drink a can or soda or eat a bag of cheetos is a brief decision. Losing weight is a long term challenge. People who want to lose weight can always rationalize eating the cheetos by saying "I'll stop doing this tomorrow" or "it's a special occasion" or "I'll go running tonight to burn off the calories," which they fail to actually do. Incentives will always be able to deter brief decisions better than long term ones.

Being someone who has lost a large amount of weight at one point in time, your point is a good one.

Other key points:
1) Eating a "normal healthy diet" is of absolutely no help when you are trying to lose weight. If you want to lose weight you are by design on an "abnormal diet." Maybe folks who haven't had to lose alot of weight don't understand this, but a weight loss diet is based on either caloric restriction or limiting specific types of calories.
2) Once you reach a target weight it's easy to go to a "normal healthy diet" to maintain, but you will not lose on that diet.

Taxes exist to raise revenue. Any other use is repugnant to liberty.

Move to New Hampshire

& drink your HighFructoseCornSyrup ™ Coca Cola [60 fl. oz]

Or perhaps the problem is the tax is too narrow---it should be on the substitutes as well in proportion to their damage. There are many problems with a "fat" tax. First there is not agreement on the criteria for measuring obesity. Many common measures like BMI and measurements of proportion of body fat are rather unreliable; although on average they work. Secondly, where is the evidence that taxing obesity directly works better than taxing food items in proportion to their tendency to cause health problems?

This may sound like reductio ad Hitlerum, but Hitler didn't actually do anything like this.

But think about it this way, Cancer treatment costs a fortune, as does all accommodation for the disabled, sure many recover from cancer and are still net producers, but how many? Considering the nature of of many childhood cancers, many will never compensate the collective for the costs of their treatment, especially when you consider the vast sums diverted to things like cancer research. Of course much of that is a sunk cost, but look at AIDS treatment or even the cost of maintaining trauma centers.

Sure everyone frames this as encouraging good behavior, but HIV is almost completely avoidable with precautions, as are many "accidental" injuries. I am well known for my loathing of Utilitarian arguments, but this sort of thoughtless utilitarianism gives even that philosophy a bard.

The problem is that this sort of sanction removes whole categories of society from considerations of Justice, after all most overweight people already pay for being overweight in all sorts of ways tangible and intangible, and this sort of attitude spreads cruelty through society and promotes a coarsening of life and reduction of trust. This can erode the adherence of out members to the group ideology and it will hardly stop at fat people. In antiquity it was widely believed that Spartan codes destroyed the Spartan state as much as luxury did, and it is quite possible that the costs of such a policy would grossly outweigh the supposed benefits.

Perhaps it would lead to the rise of fattist terrorist threats after implementation of an excessively vigorous anti-fattism strategy. The rise of the Fattobomber phenomenon ...

Direct taxes have always been seen as more tyrannical than indirect taxes because they are more intrusive. So a tax on soda is seen differently than a tax on fat people. Not only does the tax have to be paid (how? is there a form on the IRS to fill if you are fat, or is this a separate bill from the government sent only to the obese? Perhaps an inspector is sent to every home to evaluate the inhabitants?), the person has to endure the indignity of someone evaluating that, "yes, this person is obese".

Do something more obvious and easier. Eliminate snack food and beverages from food stamps/EBT cards. A Delaware official suggested doing this and there was an outcry about 'unfairness' to the poor. Seriously?

Not to argue on one side or the other of the point, but I think it's fair to note that junky foods are often the least expensive calories. It's difficult to both eat healthy and eat cheap.

Rice and beans/pulses, frozen veggies, a little bit of dariy to round out the proteins ... throw in some spices and basic cooking skills, and you can eat for easily half the cost of junk food. I tend to see junk food as cheap calories, but when I was a poor student, junk food was mostly out of reach of my budget and healthier foods were all I could afford (basically no fresh fruit and veg though ...).

In Ontario, fast food meals under $4 used to be untaxed. When they removed this tax-free status for under-$4 meals, poverty advocates cried foul. Like, I'm sort of a poverty advocate in some kinds of ways, and I definitely know what it's like to be first world poor. Seriously, if you can afford $4 fast food meals, you're not that poor. At the time, I wrote many letters supportive of the policy, explaining many other cheap and simply meal options for people who are poor.

Just as crazy as demanding that the cost of cable be accounted for in estimating the "right" amount of welfare. An internet connection clearly helps to access jobs and information and a slow connection with low data limits is clearly sufficient, but ... cable as a human right? Man, poverty advocates are truly out to lunch sometimes.

fair enough. I'll just submit that my bag of frozen broccoli from the grocery costs more than my frozen pizza.

Seems like this post could be cross-bred with your one before, "Does signaling also help you to do better?"

Is the sugar tax a panacea? No, and it's obviously over-claiming to say it will solve the problem or even make a big difference.

But is it a small step to a better world? Quite possibly. If we tax really bad things, it could gradually help people move away from consuming them, maybe a little because of the cost but in part because of the... signalling. To paraphrase you, keep telling people something is bad and they might start to believe you.

A tax is just one way of the Government telling people something is bad and trying to build the incentive against them using it. Given we have to get taxes from somewhere, I'd much rather we tax this than more worthwhile activities like working (though of course the amount brought in through this tax are relatively small).

Some of her other arguments also don't really stand up. Yes it could slightly increase the costs to a marathon runner, but as a fitness addict I can tell you that being fit costs enough in itself.

And as for a tax on fat people themselves... shaming fat people is inhumane. Shaming processed drinks that have almost no nutritional value is not. Tackle the ball, not the man.

"Of course, “fat taxes,” even when framed as weight-loss tax credits, seem pretty loathsome. Why is . . . unclear."

TIL: Catherine Rampell has autism.

Fat people are costing us hundreds of billions. The "Fat Acceptance" movement is killing people.

This isn't about shaming, this is about bad behavior. We shouldn't reward it.

> we could award tax credits to obese people who lose weight

This is grossly unfair to people who choose not to be gluttons and pigs. I'm 5'10" and 150# at age 53. This is with some care (like not eating more calories than my body needs). Where's my reward?

Tax the fat!

There are so many weak premises encased in this article that it gives me a headache.
1. That 'obesity' is primarily behavioral
2. That 'obesity' however defined is 'life shortening'
3. That the total sum of human happiness could be increased if there were less 'fat' people
4. That the electorate believes that manipulating people to move a fat needle is a valid use of coercive power
5. That economists armed with their statisticueconomerators can actually understand much of anything about the complexities of human behavior (I say this as the holder of an advanced economics degree from the University of Chicago).

This all strikes me as part and parcel of the 'nudge' movement which presumes that University Educated Elites have a better grasp on human nature than my sixth grade educated Grandfather. Everything I know about academic elites and west Texas drilling superintendents tells me that in fact the opposite is obviously and demonstrably true.

Maybe what we need is a tax on Academics who propose or promote ways to manipulate the rest of us. Because the results from that social trend have been almost totally toxic. Indeed I submit that the greatest Toxic Waste Dumps in America have become University Campuses. Higher concentrations of envy, pride, hatred, racism, sexism, intolerance, and manipulative arrogance exist there than any other place in our nation. Yet we give them massive tax subsidies to sneer at us.

Leave us the hell alone before we are forced to make you leave us alone.

It is actually dishonest to say that the nudge people only see others as irrational. Instead they see it as the human condition, something your grandfather might already know.

Reminds me of this from Dinesh D’Souza:

Recently I asked an acquaintance in Bombay why he has been trying so hard to relocate to America. He replied, “I really want to move to a country where the poor people are fat.”

Tax the negative externality. To the extent obesity represents a cost to society and not just the obese individuals require something like a "mandatory health insurance premium". I'm thinking here of how mandatory automobile insurance is required of those with poor driving records to cover the risk associated with harming others.

Isn't care insurance required of everybody who drives?

Everyone with a car, that is.

Found the guy not from New England.

LOL. I'd love to be able to insure that somebody cares about me. Probably be pricey though ;-)

What's scary is how many people will look at this reductio and think, yeah, let's tax obesity!

Is that the scary part? Everyone arguing for the soda tax are really just trying to tax obesity through an opaque poorly designed mechanism. They want to target obesity, but they don't want to be accused of being mean. So instead, they push a rather bad proxy, because it will be less confrontational.

Now, to be fair, perhaps a Soda Tax is the most pragmatic solution. It's easy to administer, it probably will help to some limited extent, and most importantly it's more opaque and less likely to hike voter anger.

We tax soda and sugars instead of people with obesity for the same reason we tax cigarettes and not people with lung cancer. Taxing a specific subgroup of people extra for existing wit a medical condition is extremely unethical.

Obesity is essentially genetic. Being overweight is a choice. Neither is caused by sodas or sugar. The majority of people who drink sugary drinks are neither obese or excessively overweight. Why would any thinking person actually believe that a tax on soda would do anything to fight obesity?

IMHO no one is trying to help the obese. My guess is that the soda taxers are:
1. Embarrassed that their citizens are fatter on average than people in other developed countries.
2. They do not want to see obese people because they are not pretty.

I'd add:

3. They don't personally drink much soda, so this pushes their morality onto other.

Or you could do something really stupid like they are trying to do in Philadelphia. The mayor wants to enact a soda tax and use the money to pay for pre-K schooling.

I can maybe start to think about possibly beginning to get behind a "sin" tax when it is used to help the people you are taxing. If you use the soda tax money to fund weight loss programs and diabetes programs, then when people stop drinking so much soda because it's expensive, they get healthy and you don't need the tax money to fund the programs.

If you do something stupid like use the tax money to fund something totally unrelated, what are you going to do when the revenue drops? Then we'll end up with a soda tax AND we'll have to raise taxes to keep funding the pre-K programs.

Pre-K schooling because it is proven successful or why exactly? Make no mistake the pre-K school is a payoff to the unions and it will require far more money than a soda tax can raise. It is a perfect way to extract money from the taxpayer and pay off crony connections.

In Philadelphia, you're probably right, but I really have no idea what the rationale behind the push for pre-K schooling is. If the public believes that education is important to the general well being of society, then everyone should pay for it in the form of higher taxes. We should not be making a small group pay for it with an unrelated tax.

I generally oppose these sin taxes unless they are used to pay for programs to help people with the "bad" behavior. Using cigarette tax money to pay for smoking cessation programs works because if people do stop smoking, tax revenue goes down, but so does the need for the support programs, so the lack of revenue isn't a problem. Using soda tax money to pay for education is a problem because if the tax works and people drink less soda, you still need to pay for the education programs. Where is that money going to come from? This highlights the other reason I dislike sin taxes. It allows politicians to hide behind these taxes and claim they didn't raise the overall tax rate. No one wants taxes to be higher than they need to be, but if we need to pay for a general societal need, then politicians should have the guts to stand up and say so. Explain to the public why they need to raise taxes, and how the money will be used and see what people think.

I think you're missing something big, apologies if other commenters got to it first.

Everyone has an equal opportunity to put down the big gulp (psychology aside), and doing so is unlikely to cause any serious damage.

Weight loss however is a totally different beast. Not only are some people genuinely unable to lose weight in a normal way, but every obese person who develops a serious eating disorder such as anorexia (a significant number even in the status quo) is going to have good reason to look back bitterly at a government that threatened wage garnishment if they didn't hurry up and get slim.

Arguing with myself here, is it really more unfair to reward those with incidentally faster metabolisms than it is to reward those with incidentally better brains?

Does fairness really matter?

Probably no to both. If it is a net gain to the obese, tax away I suppose. Just make sure that it is, and is being carefully measured; because on face I catch a whiff of meddlesome preferences and coercion based on ideas of virtue.

I tend to think of this sort of thing as heaping privilge upon the privilged and/or kicking a man who is down. That having been said, I would be supportive of a soda or sugar tax if there was convincing evidence that a) it would have the desired effect and b) would not have perverse effects. I'm not at all convinced of either.

Do fat people even drink soda? I bet they all drink diet soda. It's the people who are getting fat that drink soda. They need the tax more.

Why tax at all? Obesity is only a problem if others subsidize health care for the obese. Wouldn't it be even more efficient to just make people pay for their own healthcare? Some obese people are healthier than some thin people....

Has anyone brought up the fact that there would be a higher cost in assessing and implementing a direct fat tax than a sales tax on soda? Would we have to include a doctor's form in our tax return? What would be the standard for obesity? How would we regulate dishonest doctors? It's clearly about more than just avoiding hurt feelings here.

Comments for this post are closed