Sugar Price Supports and Taxation: A Public Health Policy Paradox
Domestic US sugar production has been protected by government policy for the past 82 years, resulting in elevated domestic prices and an estimated annual (2013) $1.4 billion dollar “tax” on consumers. These elevated prices and the simultaneous federal support for domestic corn production have ensured a strong market for high-fructose corn syrup. Americans have dramatically increased their consumption of caloric sweeteners during the same period. Consumption of “empty” calories (ie, foods with low-nutrient/high-caloric density)—sugar and high-fructose corn syrup being the primary sources—is considered by most public health experts to be a key contributing factor to the rise in obesity. There have been substantial efforts to tax sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) to both reduce consumption and provide a source of funds for nutrition education, thereby emulating the tobacco tax model. Volume-based SSB taxes levy the tax rate per ounce of liquid, where some are only imposed on beverages with added sugar content exceeding a set threshold. Nonetheless, volume-based taxes have significant limitations in encouraging consumers to reduce their caloric intake due to a lack of transparency at the point of purchase. Thus, it is hypothesized that point-of-purchase, nutrient-specific excise taxes on SSBs would be more effective at reducing sugar consumption. However, all SSB taxes are limited by the possibility that consumers may compensate their decreased intake from SSBs with other high-calorie junk foods. Furthermore, there are no existing studies to provide evidence on how SSB taxes will impact obesity rates in the long term. The paradox of sugar prices is that Americans have paid higher prices for sugar to protect domestic production for more than 80 years, and now, Americans are being asked to pay even more to promote public health. The effective use of sugar taxes should be considered based on their merits in reducing sugar consumption and making available a new source of funds to support nutrition education, not on lobbying efforts by the food industry or sugar and corn producers.