A typology of beverage taxation: Multiple approaches for obesity prevention and obesity prevention-related revenue generation
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Obesity is a global problem. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) are a leading contributor of added sugars in individual diets and thus to obesity. Governments have considered taxing SSBs to prevent obesity and generate revenue, but no ‘one-size-fits-all’ taxation approach exists. We describes three key considerations for governments interested in exploring beverage taxation: (i) what type of tax to apply plus how and where the tax is collected and presented to consumers; (ii) what types of beverages to tax; and (iii) the amount of tax needed to affect consumption and/or obesity prevention-related revenue generation. We offer examples of existing beverage taxes in the United States and internationally. The information will be useful to policymakers at all levels of government, as they continue to consider beverage taxation policies.
Keywordstax beverage obesity
Consumption of highly caloric beverages laden with sugars has been linked to obesity and overweight problems worldwide.1, 2, 3 Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) serves as the leading source of added sugars and a major energy contributor in the US diet4, 5 and is markedly higher for adolescents as compared with children, and for young adults, as compared with older adults.6, 7 Production and consumption of SSBs continues to increase worldwide. Consumption of soft drinks in Latin America and Eastern Europe alone is expected to grow by 15 per cent between 2009 and 2014.8
In response to growing concerns about SSB consumption and obesity, governments are pursuing policy options to reduce SSB access and/or increase SSB prices. The access-focused policies have centered on school-based restrictions, with recent evidence indicating that they are associated with reduced in-school access and/or consumption.9, 10 Governments have also begun adopting policies aimed at reducing SSB access in public venues, such as by requiring healthy vending and procurement policies for beverages sold/served in government-owned/operated locations.
On the price side, drawing from the success of tobacco taxation in reducing smoking prevalence among adults and youth, the public health community has called for SSB excise taxes of at least 1 cent / liquid ounce as a way to increase SSB prices significantly, reduce consumption, and reduce obesity rates.11, 12 In the United States, several state and local governments have considered imposing excise or significantly higher sales taxes on SSBs; however, to date, none of these recent efforts has succeeded.13 Internationally, several European and Pacific countries have reinstated, introduced, or are considering similar taxes.14, 15, 16, 17, 18
State sales taxes on selected beverages as of 1 January 2013 (Source: Bridging the Gap Program 2013)
Type of beveragea
Mean sales tax, all statesc
Number of states applying a sales tax to beverage
Mean sales tax, taxing states only
Regular carbonated soda
Diet carbonated soda
Isotonic beverages (sports drinks)
<50 per cent juice
51–99 per cent juice
100 per cent juice
The emerging evidence base and recommendations plus the need for additional revenues means governments worldwide are considering taxing SSBs. Such proposals are often met with extensive opposition – particularly from the beverage industry and from retailers concerned about job losses and/or lost revenue. Denmark recently repealed a ‘fat tax’ and a ‘sugar tax’ after the first year. The ‘fat tax’ had taxed foods high in saturated fat. It was criticized for raising food prices for consumers, making Danish products more expensive than imported foods, increasing administrative costs for food companies, and leading to job losses.29, 30 In a US example, the beverage industry spent US$4.1 million during the November 2012 election cycle to defeat ballot measures in Richmond and El Monte, California. Both measures would have added a penny-per-ounce tax to regular soda with monies to be dedicated to childhood obesity prevention activities. In comparison, supporters of the measures spent only $114 000.31
In addition to the political and societal challenges that policymakers face when considering such taxes, they must decide between several policy approaches to beverage taxation. Recent papers by Thow19 and Mytton18 offer useful overviews of the issues and global context for taxing to achieve public health nutrition, and taxing of unhealthy foods and drinks, respectively. We believe that this is the first study to examine beverage taxation globally and to identify factors that decision makers should consider when seeking to tax beverages.
Key Factors to Consider about Beverage Taxes
Definitions of key terms
Ad valorem tax
Tax imposed as a percentage of a given beverage’s value (for example, 20 per cent of price)
Beverage containing noncaloric, artificial sweeteners (for example, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin)
Excise tax or excise duty
Tax levied on the manufacture, sale, use, or distribution of beverages. May also include a fixed fee or tax levied on an activity or an occupation, such as a privilege fee for selling fountain soda
A VAT (see below) imposed on goods and services in some countries (for example, Australia)
Canadian tax that combines the Canada GST with the provincial sales taxes The Canadian GST operates similar to a sales tax rather than a VAT
Point of purchase
The point at which the consumer purchases the beverage (that is, at the cash register or checkout)
An ad valorem tax levied on the sale of goods and services at the point of purchase
The price displayed in the case or on the shelf where the consumer selects the beverage (for example, refrigerated display)
A tax or levy assessed based on beverage volume or, perhaps, sugar volume (for example, $0.66/liter, 1 cent / ounce of sugar)
A calorically sweetened beverage
A tax applying to the production and distribution of commercial goods that is charged as a percentage of price at each stage in the production/distribution chain. It is considered a consumption tax because the ultimate ‘cost’ of paying the tax through each stage of the production/distribution chain is borne by the consumer at the place of purchase
Beverage taxation considerations
Type of tax to apply
How tax is applied
Where tax is ‘presented’ to consumer
Where in the distribution chain tax is collected
Types of beverages to tax
Could affect weight outcomes
Generates revenue that could be dedicated for obesity prevention programs
Specific (for example, 1 cent / ounce, 1 cent / teaspoon of added sugar, $/ liter) OR
M, I, W, D, and/or R
SSBs, ASBs, or both
Depends on what beverages are taxed and whether SSB post-tax price is higher than the post-tax/final price for ASBs, 100 per cent juice, and water
Yes if sizeable tax (for example, 1 cent / ounce, 20 per cent of price); special fund could be established for dedicated tax revenues
Ad valorem (for example, 20 per cent of price)
Point of purchase (register)
SSBs, ASBs, or both
VAT (including GST and HST)
M, I, W, D, R, C (but ultimately paid for by consumer at the final point of sale)
SSBs, ASBs, or both
(i) What type of tax to apply, how to apply the tax, where to collect the tax, and where the consumer ultimately sees the tax ‘incorporated’? (Columns 1–4 of Table 3 summarize the options)
The tax may be in the form of an excise, sales, or a value-added tax (VAT) (see Table 2 for definitions). An excise tax would be levied before the point of purchase, so it would be presented to the consumer through an increase in the shelf price (that is, the point at which purchase decisions are being made). It may be a specific tax (for example, 1 cent / ounce, 1 cent / teaspoon of added caloric sweetener, $0.20/liter) or ad valorem (for example, 10 per cent of price). Excise taxes are easier to collect as they are typically collected earlier in the distribution process, when there are fewer entities from which to collect taxes. This lowers the administrative costs and the likelihood of tax evasion.
Sales taxes are ad valorem taxes applied at the point of purchase (that is, at the cash register), presented to the consumer only on the final cash register receipt, and collected at the point of sale. VATs are broad-based consumption taxes assessed on the value added to goods, such as SSBs, at each stage in the production/distribution/retail chain. Governments collect them fractionally, based on a system of partial payments at each stage in the chain.32 In most cases, goods and services taxes (GST) and harmonized sales taxes (HST) are forms of VAT taxes (see Table 2).
Specific taxes offer several advantages over ad valorem taxes including, but not limited to, the following: (i) their impact does not fluctuate with the price; thus they reduce relative price gaps when imposed or increased, making it less likely that consumers will substitute down to cheaper beverage options in response to taxes and tax increases (for example, going to cheaper beverages or high volume options that are cheaper per ounce);33 (ii) they produce more predictable/stable revenues, important if these are to be used to fund obesity prevention efforts. If the tax is high enough, it will induce larger declines in consumption;27, 34 (iii) they are not subject to the same sort of industry price manipulation as ad valorem taxes; and (iv) they are easier to administer because the taxes are based solely on volume. Specific taxes, however, have the disadvantage of needing to be regularly adjusted to keep pace with inflation.34
In contrast, ad valorem taxes yield unstable revenues, as revenue fluctuates with the price (for example, 20 per cent of a $1.00 bottle yields $0.20 in tax revenue; whereas, if the price of the bottle declined to $0.90, a 20 per cent tax would only yield $0.18 in tax revenue).34 In essence, the government subsidizes industry price cuts (that is, tax revenue declines) but benefits from industry price increases (that is, tax revenue increases). Ad valorem taxes are more likely to keep pace with inflation than specific taxes, assuming prices follow inflation trends. Ad valorem taxes may also induce ‘trading down’ to less expensive brands, and thus generate less revenue. Finally, on the basis of experiences with cigarette taxes, ad valorem taxes require strong tax administrative systems because of the potential for abusive transfer pricing to avoid taxes. (If the tax is imposed at the manufacturer level, manufacturers can set artificially low prices, pay a low tax, and then raise prices later in the distribution chain.)34
Like an excise tax, the VAT is usually built into the shelf price seen by consumers, but because the VAT is applied at each stage strong administrative systems are required to ensure that the tax is paid at each stage. VAT also is subject to the same limitations as ad valorem taxes generally (as described above).
(ii) What types of beverages to tax?
Options to consider when determining what types of beverages to tax – include taxing: (i) only SSBs; (ii) all sweetened beverages; (iii) all/most beverages; or (iv) selected beverages. SSBs include all beverages for liquid consumption sweetened with caloric sweeteners including, but not limited to, calorically sweetened carbonated beverages, ready-to-drink (RTD) packaged teas/coffees, isotonic beverages or sports drinks, energy drinks, less than 100 per cent juice and fruit drinks, and calorically sweetened waters.28 In choosing to tax only SSBs, governments may decide to tax all SSBs or only selected SSBs (for example, only calorically sweetened carbonated beverages).
Or they may choose to tax all sweetened beverages, including both SSBs and artificially sweetened beverages (ASBs). ASBs are sweetened with noncaloric sweeteners (for example, aspartame, saccharin, or sugar substitutes) and include, but are not limited to, diet/no-calorie beverages and artificially sweetened RTD packaged teas/coffees, 0-calorie isotonic beverages, artificially sweetened less than 100 per cent juice drinks, and no-calorie, sweetened waters.
Alternatively, policymakers may opt to tax all beverages, regardless of sweetener, including SSBs, ASBs, 100 per cent juices, and bottled water or selected beverages (for example, all carbonated beverages and all juices with <100 per cent juice drinks). A jurisdiction need not tax all beverages at the same rate (see Table 1).
Besides the specific type of beverage, taxes may vary based on the beverage preparation method (for example, syrup, powder/mix). Sales taxes, however, are generally applied based on quantity (for example, gallons of syrup, per teaspoon of added sugar, per ounce, or gallons of beverage produced from the base product/mix).
(iii) What tax rate will affect consumption and obesity prevention-related revenue generation?
Given the link between SSB consumption and caloric intake,6, 7, 35 an SSB-specific tax would reduce SSB consumption more than a more broadly based beverage tax, as the SSB-only tax will encourage substitution to no/low calorie options.28, 33 Thus, SSB-specific taxes have the dual benefit of increasing the absolute price, while increasing the price of SSBs relative to no/low calorie beverages. At least one study has suggested that SSB-specific taxes might lead consumers to substitute to other, nontaxed high-calorie beverages (for example, full-fat milk) and, therefore, might have little effect on body weight.25 Yet, even if SSB-specific taxes had minimal impact on weight, they would reduce consumption of beverages with no nutritional value in favor of more nutritious or less caloric options. This would diminish some consequences of SSB consumption, including dental caries and diabetes.
We know that the larger the tax or relative price increase, the larger the impact on consumption, health-related outcomes and costs, and revenue generation (particularly in the beginning).12, 26 Public health experts have called for a $.01 / ounce tax on SSBs to reduce US consumption.11 Andreyeva and colleagues estimate that such a tax would reduce US SSB consumption by 24 per cent and generate over $79 billion in new revenue between 2010 and 2015, available for obesity prevention programming.28 An ad valorem tax equal to a 1 cent / ounce specific tax (for example, 20 per cent of the price) would have similar effects. A specific or ad valorem tax resulting in lower overall prices would have less of an effect on consumption, health outcomes, and revenues.
Examples of Beverage Taxation Approaches
We highlight here approaches to beverage taxation globally, presenting examples based on the type of tax: excise, sales, or VAT.
Approach 1: Excise or equivalent beverage taxes/fees
Current nonsales taxes on beverages in the United States (as of 1 January 2013)
Jurisdiction and citation(s)
Types of beverages
Type of tax
Amount of tax
Alabama (ALA. CODE §§ 40-12-69, -70)
Soda water, carbonated drinks, fruit juices, flavored milk, soft drinks
Runs from: $40 state and $40 county tax for <16 bottles/min to $500 state and $500 county license tax for 150 bottles +/min $2.50/year
Bottles, cans, or other sealed containers
Carbonated or other soft drinks
Tap or dispensing
Less than 5000 inhabitants: $10; 5000–15 000 people: $15; 15 000–25 000: $20; over 25 000: $25. All of these are in addition to another annual $2.50 retailer license tax $50/year; does not apply to bottlers who have paid annual bottler license tax for operating plants in the state (see above)
Carbonated or other soft drinks
Arkansas (ARK. CODE ANN. § 26-57-904)
Bottles powder/other base product
M, W, D, Rb
M, W, D, Rb
Rhode Island (R.I. GEN. LAWS § 44-44-3)
Case of beverage containers sold
Beverage containers; includes containers for: carbonated soft drinks, soda water, mineral water, and bottled water
Unspecified nonsales tax
$0.04/case (does not apply to reusable or refillable containers)
Tennessee (Tenn. Code Ann. §67-5-402)
Bottled soft drinks: all nonalcoholic beverages, whether carbonated or not (for example, soda water, cola drinks, orangeade, grapeade, gingerale, and the like) and all bottled preparations commonly referred to as soft drinks; excludes fluid milk (with/without flavoring), 100 per cent juice or juice concentrate
1.9 per cent of gross receipts
M, R, I, D
Virginia (VA. CODE ANN. § 58.1-1702)
Carbonated soft drinks
Tax amount ranges from $50 for gross receipts ≤$100 000 to $33 000 for gross receipts >$50 million
Washington (WASH. REV. CODE ANN. § 82.64.020)
Carbonated beverage syrup
$1/gal (fractional amounts taxed proportionally)
West Virginia (W. VA. CODE ANN. §§ 11-19-1, -2)
Soft drinks: all nonalcoholic beverages, whether carbonated or not or any and all preparations commonly referred to as ‘soft drinks’, which are closed and sealed in glass, paper, or any other type of container, envelope, package, or bottle, whether manufactured with or without the use of any syrup. The term ‘bottled soft drinks’ shall not include fluid milk to which no flavoring has been added, or natural undiluted fruit juice or vegetable juice
$0.01/16.9 ounce (or fraction thereof) or each ½ liter (or fraction thereof) $0.80/gal or part thereof $0.84/4L or part thereof $0.01/ounce or on each 28.35g
D, M, W, R, I
Baltimore city (Balt. City. Code. 28 § 20-1)
Fruit juice <10 per cent natural fruit juice content; RTD teas; any soda water, carbonated water, natural or artificial mineral water, or natural or spring water; any soft drink including cola, ginger ale, root beer, sasparilla, or any other carbonated or uncarbonated beverage referred to as a soft drink; excludes dairy products, nondairy milk substitutes, anything with >10 per cent fruit juice, and any beverage container ≥2L
Chicago city (Chicago City Code 3 § 45-01 et seq.)
Soft drinks sold at retail (including vending machines)
Soft drinks: any nonalcoholic beverage containing natural or artificial sweeteners including, but not limited to, soda, sport or energy drinks, sweetened tea, enhanced sweetened or flavored waters, drinks containing ≤50 per cent juice, and all other preparations commonly known as soft drinks; excludes beverages containing milk, milk substitutes, unsweetened teas, drinks with >50 per cent juice by volume, and unsweetened carbonated or uncarbonated water
Retailers’ occupation tax
$0.03 of gross receipts
Fountain soft drinks
Fountain soft drink tax
9 per cent of syrup price
Businesses selling syrup to retailers or retailers selling fountain soft drinks
Examples of non-US beverage tax approaches
Country, effective date if newly enacted (superscript numbers are the reference list numbers)
Type of tax
Ad valorem (in percentage)
Specific amount of tax ($ equivalent as of 17 October 2012)
Tax on sales volume of soft drink producers
Finance Law 2012, effective from 1 January 2012
0.40 tala/liter ($0.17/liter)
Soft drinks (carbonated beverages), RTD teas and coffees, <90 per cent juice drinks
Excise tax on the person who releases the beverage for consumption on the Belgium market
Waters, including mineral and aerated waters, containing added sugars or other added sweeteners or flavorings
3.7184€ per hectoliter ($4.88 per hectoliter or $0.001/liter)
Carbonated beverages, <25 per cent fruit juice by volume
Ranges from 5 to 15 per cent depending on the province
Mineral water, lemonade, and ‘similar’ nonalcoholic beverages with sugar content of >0.5 g/100 ml
>0.5 g of sugar/100ml: DKK 1.58/liter ($0.28/liter)
Mineral water, lemonade, and ‘similar’ nonalcoholic beverages with sugar content of <0.5 g/100 ml
<0.5 g of sugar/100ml: DKK 0.57/ liter ($0.10/liter)
Import duty excise tax and VAT
Fruit juices only: 15 per cent VAT
Waters (including mineral and aerated)
All other beverages listed subject to 15 per cent VAT and 15 per cent import excise duty
Containing added sugars or sweeteners or flavorings and other nonalcoholic beverages excluding fruit juices
Excise tax on warehousers, registered consignees and persons importing taxable goods from outside the European Union or receive them in the course of business activity from another member state
Soft drinks, fruit juices, lemonade
0.95€/kg or 0.11€/liter ($1.25/kg or $0.14/liter)
Beverages with added sugars and ASBs
7.16€/100 liters ($9.39/100 liters or $0.094 / liter)
Loi de finances pour 2012, Article 26 and 27, effective from 1 January 2013
Production (excise) tax and consumption (import) taxes
60 fran/liter ($0.66)
Specific tax/fee on the distribution and preparation
Carbonated beverages (including sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened) and mixes or concentrates used to prepare carbonated beverages
Carbonated beverages: Q 0.18/liter ($0.02/liter)
Isotonic beverages or sports drinks
Isotonics/sports drinks: Q 0.012/liter ($0.015/liter)
Fruit juices or nectars and yogurt beverages
Fruit juices/nectars: Q 0.10/liter ($0.013/liter)
Bottled water (of <4 liters)
Bottled water: Q 0.08/liter ($0.01/liter)
Public health product tax (~excise tax)
Soft drinks (>8g sugar/100 ml)
Soft drinks: 5 forints/liter ($0.024/liter)
Act CIII of 2011, effective from 9 January 2011
Energy drinks (>10 mg caffeine/100 ml)
Energy drinks: 250 forints ($1.18/liter)
Pre-packaged sugar-sweetened products (>25–40g added sugar/100g depending on product)
Pre-packaged sugar-sweetened products: 100 forints/kg ($0.47/liter)
Soft drinks, fruit juices (including fresh-squeezed) sold in stores, vending machines, and ‘take-away’ businesses
23 (standard VAT)
Excise tax on importers, approved warehousekeepers, registered consignor, registered consignee
Water and mineral water with added sugar or other sweetener or flavoring and other nonalcoholic beverages with added sugars or sweeteners
5.2 LVL/100 liters ($9.80/100 liters or $0.098/liter)
Imported carbonated soft drinks, cordials, flavored milks, and drink mixes containing sugar
Norway (Customs Region Oslo and Akershus Information Office, personal communication, 25 October 2012)
Excise duty (imports and domestic production)
Nonalcoholic beverages containing added sugar or artificial sweeteners
NOK 2.85/liter ($0.50)
Other European Union countries46
VAT taxes on mineral watersa, lemonade, and fruit juices
VAT ranges from 3 per cent in Lithuania to 24 per cent in Romania
Approach 2: Sales taxes on beverages
The second approach applies a sales tax, a percentage of the retail price. We are not aware of any government that applies a sales tax only to SSBs. Sales taxes are generally applied to both SSBs and ASBs as in states in the United States that currently apply small taxes to sodas, soft drinks, and other beverages (see Table 1). These sales taxes use several approaches, including (i) sales taxes applying to all items sold; (ii) by not including soft drinks (or similar beverages) in the sales tax exemption for food products; or (iii) as sales taxes applying to a wide variety of beverages. (Additional information on state taxes and definitions is available at www.bridgingthegapresearch.org/research/sodasnack_taxes/.)
Approach 3: VAT on beverages
We know of no government with a SSB-specific VAT, a VAT, or VAT-like tax (for example, GST or HST), but many tax a broad range of beverages (see Table 5). Australia,46 Canada47, Fiji42 Ireland,48 and other European Union countries49 all apply a VAT or VAT-like tax (for example, GST or HST) to beverages. These VAT and VAT-like taxes are applied ad valorem, like the excise and sales taxes, but no country currently restricts the VAT to SSBs.
The European Union’s VAT Directive requires member states to apply a standard rate of at least 15 per cent, but allows a reduced rate for certain categories of goods and services (for example, nonalcoholic beverages are eligible for a reduced VAT).50 Data from 1 July 2012 indicate that VAT rates applied to SSBs such as lemonade and fruit juices (unspecified) vary greatly by European Union member countries – ranging from a low of 3 per cent in Luxembourg to a high of 27 per cent in Hungary (with a mean and median VAT of 16 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively).49 No data exist on whether the VAT applies to other SSBs or ASBs in European Union countries, although mineral waters are taxed at the same rate as lemonade and fruit juices in all member countries except for Cyprus, Poland, and Portugal: Cyprus applies a 17 per cent VAT on mineral water but only a 5 per cent VAT on lemonade and fruit juices; Poland applies a 23 per cent VAT on mineral water and lemonade but only a 8 per cent VAT on fruit juices; and Portugal applies a 6 per cent VAT on mineral water but a 23 per cent VAT on lemonade and fruit juices.49
Governments have several beverage taxation options. In addition to choosing the type and the amount of the tax to apply (both of which will differentially affect price, consumption, health, and revenue outcomes), governments must also decide what types and forms of beverages to tax. From a public health perspective, governments should consider the options that will lead to the greatest overall price increases for SSBs while incentivizing or making healthy options (such as bottled water and 100 per cent juice) more affordable in comparison to SSBs.11, 26, 28 Ultimately, the type of tax (specific excise tax), how broadly it is applied (all SSBs rather than just some), and how large it is (enough to raise the price significantly) will determine its impact. Ideally, the SSB taxes will be large enough to generate substantial initial revenue for obesity prevention programs, reduce SSB consumption, and improve health outcomes.
Of course, the proposals will remain just that (proposals) unless the public health and advocacy communities find ways to counter the stiff political and financial opposition from the beverage industry. (We described above recent actions in Denmark and California.) Two key strategies that may help garner support is to: (i) frame policies as revenue-generating and (ii) identify health care expenditure savings (for example, reduced insurance claims for diabetes) resulting from such taxes.51 In 2011, France took this approach and passed a beverage tax that was expected to raise 280 million euros ($389 million) in 2012 alone, with one-half of the funds slated for obesity prevention and the remainder to lower social taxes on farm labor.52 At the same time, 2012 polling data from California indicated that 57 per cent of voters polled said that, if approved by the majority of the state’s voters, they would support giving local governments the authority to tax products like alcohol, tobacco, junk foods, or sweetened beverages to help pay for obesity prevention programs.53 In Vermont, 2011 polling data indicated that 49 per cent of those polled supported a tax on SSBs as one approach to the state’s budget deficit.54 Yet, a 2012 US national poll from Harris Interactive indicated that only 38 per cent of those polled would support a new tax on soft drinks with a high sugar content for improving health and safety.55 Clearly, the public is divided on its support for this issue.
Research is needed to dispel industry-sponsored claims that there will be substantial regional job losses due to SSB taxes.56 Tobacco companies made similar misleading arguments in opposition to tobacco taxes, but they were subsequently refuted by independent research.57
It is critical that proposals for beverage taxes be carefully crafted and advanced. Without policy proposals on the decisional agenda, the possibility of such taxes and the associated revenue generation and broader public health impacts will diminish to nonexistant.
Support for this manuscript was provided through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Bridging the Gap Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (PI: Frank Chaloupka) and through the National Institutes of Health grant numbers 1R01HL096664 (PI: Lisa Powell) and 1R01DK089096 (PI: Jamie Chriqui).
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