Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of 32-ounce sodas has hit up against some serious negative public opinion of late. First there was the Million Big Gulp March, in which a sprinkling of protestors showed up to protect the right to buy supersized beverages. More problematically for the mayor, a New York Times poll found that 60 percent of New Yorkers oppose the ban. The Times' quote from Queens resident Bob Barocas bluntly summed up the opposition to the ban: "This is like the nanny state going off the wall."
No one likes to be told what to do. And if the city is banning supersized soda, some fear that it won't be long before the government will be forcing broccoli down our gullets. Maybe it's time to revisit a gentler approach to nudging New Yorkers to eat and drink more healthily by taxing sugar, fat, and other foods that help make America the fattest nation on earth. Boosting prices on unhealthy food is also fraught with controversy, in large part because poor people eat a lot of the junk food that would be targeted with the new taxes. Much prior work has found that food and beverage purchases_including those by low-income shoppers_are surprisingly insensitive to changes in prices; consumers buy what they want to buy anyway. If this is the case, then fat and sugar taxes will further impoverish the poor without making them any skinnier.
But new evidence suggests that this concern may be overstated. A trio of marketing professors have shown that in places where a gallon of whole milk is 40 or 50 cents more expensive than skim, low-income shoppers are twice as likely to buy the lower-calorie milk. If consumers react similarly to price increases for sugary sodas and other unhealthy food options, simple economic incentives may help make low income Americans healthier, and without having to ban any Big Gulps.