Why soda bans don't work

I just saw an article, “Soda Bans in Schools Have Limited Impact”. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate soda bans in school as a policy in isolation.

Here are my thoughts on the economics and politics, and health and cultural aspects of the issue.

Economics 101

The article describes the empirical results from soda bans:

The economics of the situation are obvious:

Basic economic theory has a way to reduce consumption of sugary beverages, of course: a Pigovian tax such as the sin tax on cigarettes. A tax on the entire category of sugary beverages would do the trick. There is reason to believe the price elasticity is sufficient that such a tax would considerably reduce consumption.

Politics 101

And such a wide-ranging tax is completely impossible, politically. Even an overall soda tax is, I believe, politically impossible. Worse, it would not solve the problem, because as we know from the school example, there are other sugary beverages that pose the very same health problems but are not labeled as “soda”.

Bigger picture of economics

Worse, the problem as narrowly defined, that of decreasing consumption of sugary beverages, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bigger picture of public health. People will eat cookies and any number of other less perfect substitutes for sugary beverages anyway.

Beyond economics to health

And the purported motivation for reducing sugary beverages has been to reduce obesity. Obesity happens for all kinds of reasons. Worse, I don’t even like the focus on weight. Poor health has to do with a lot more than weight. Most people, when thinking about their weight, and try to lose it, don’t even apply healthy strategies to lose weight, or even to do so permanently rather than temporarily. I don’t believe stopgap politically controversial initiatives can do much to address the real problems.

Culture and a personal note

I am bombarded daily with access to sugary beverages. Every time I go to a lunch seminar or party or reception, cans and bottles of soda, sports beverages, juices, and sweetened teas are provided. Clearly American culture is simply not ready to give up on these beverages. I get the impression that I am in the minority in choosing not to drink them. I have had maybe four or five cans or bottles of such beverages in the past ten years. I get the impression that a lot of people I see around have had approximately ten thousand cans or bottles in the past ten years. I don’t lecture people on why they should abstain, because it is useless even when directed toward, say, my own parents. I don’t know what it will take for the culture to change, or what I can do to help. Right now, I just silently abstain.

Do you have any suggestions of what I could really do to help spread the word that life really might be more enjoyable without consuming sugary beverages all the time?

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