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A 6-cent tax could be enough to get Americans to drink less soda

Philippe Huguen / AFP via Getty Images

Tacking a few extra cents onto sugary drinks like Coke and Pepsi could significantly reduce how much Americans drink.

A new study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that adding a tax of 0.04 cents per calorie of sugar on drinks — the equivalent of nearly 6 cents for a 12 ounce can soda — would drive Americans to drink 5,800 calories less in sweet drinks each year. That reduction is roughly two days worth of the recommended number of calories.

By analyzing supermarket data in New York, researchers were able to compare the impact of an ounce-based tax and a calorie-based tax. They found the calorie-based tax would be superior, since it's a more precise measure of the amount of sugar in drinks. But such a measure could be more difficult to implement in practice because it involves a more sophisticated target.

The tax, of course, doesn't mean Americans will drop their tasty drinks altogether: researchers found that the average person buys more than 21,000 in calories of such drinks each year, and the 5,800 reduction is about one-fourth of that. But it could push Americans to wean themselves off more sugary drinks, like Coke, and instead take up healthier sweet drinks that would be exempted from the tax, like 100-percent fruit juice.

Still, there's a lot of room to question the political feasibility of such a tax. Although an abundance of sugar is one of the leading causes of America's obesity and health problems, measures restraining consumers' intake of sugar tend to be very unpopular. In New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempts to ban supersize versions of sodas have been met with public scorn and even legal challenges.

Health experts are so concerned with the problem that some are even calling for taxing and regulating sugar like a drug. That might seem like an overreaction to many Americans, but pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig argued in a previous interview that it's a necessary step due to sugar's saturation in food products and addictiveness. He claimed the idea could be sold to the public if the revenue was attached to the right policy, like, say, a significant subsidy on healthier foods.

"Sugar is the alcohol of a child," Lustig said. "You would never let a child drink a can of Budweiser, but you would never think twice about a can of Coke. Yet what it does to the liver, what it does to the arteries, what it does to the heart is all the same. And that's why we have adolescents with type 2 diabetes."

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