Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a proposal to ban the sale of sodas larger than 20 ounces by any retailers regulated by the city’s health department. This proposal has many New Yorkers upset, and even the New York Times says this would be a step too far toward paternalism.
While many agree that banning a product goes beyond the bounds of what we can tolerate from the nanny state, writers including Matt Yglesias support additional soda taxes instead. Yglesias suggests that a soda excise tax is a good idea primarily because it will raise revenue and that one good use of this revenue would be increased welfare payments.
The problem with suggesting excise taxes as revenue raisers to support welfare programs is that low-income people are those who are disproportionately hurt by these taxes. Yglesias suggests that the tax will fall in large part on tourists, but I’m not convinced that tourists drink a large percentage of sodas sold throughout the city. Further, a study of soda consumption in New York shows that people in a household at 200% of the poverty or below drink more soda than the average New Yorker. If this statistic were adjusted for the percent of income spend on soda, the results would be even more striking. This tax will also fall the hardest on those who have the strongest preferences for soda over other drinks, the same people who are the least likely to change their behavior as a result of the tax.
Paternalists may suggest that low income soda drinkers are behaving irrationally and that a higher soda tax will help them make better choices. However, it’s impossible for regulators or supporters of paternalistic policies to understand consumers’ preferences better than consumers themselves. While increased health outcomes may be an objective for policymakers, this is not to say that it is or should be everyone’s objective. Almost none of us acts in accordance with seeking the lowest risk choices in diet or any other area of life, and trying to enforce healthy choices with tax policy is going to make some people worse off with the highest burden falling on those at the low end of the income distribution.
However, a policy choice is available to policy makers not in New York but at the federal level that would decrease the deficit, make soda a little more expensive, and likely lead consumers to make healthier choices at the grocery store. Corn subsidies totaled an estimated $3.5 billion in 2010, making food made with corn products relatively cheaper than food that is less heavily subsidized. Rather than targeting a specific product, large sodas, Bloomberg should put his efforts toward advocating a more fair national food policy in which food prices more accurately reflect their true costs.