sugary fountain drink being dispensed
Leah Berenson
Leah Berenson
April 16, 2024 ·  5 min read

Poorest Americans drink a lot more, sugary drinks than the richest – could a tax help with health inequalities?

The human body is complex and can withstand some pretty spectacular feats. Which is why people seek to nourish the best way they can. Sometimes that may be by consuming something healthy or avoiding something unhealthy, like added sugar. We’ve long heard of the health risks of consuming too much sugar. In 2020 Patricia Smith and Jay L. Zagorsky wrote an article on The Conversation. In it, they discussed evidence from a study they authored. The evidence seemed to demonstrate a link between lower-income households and an intake of sugary drinks.

Gathering Information

Patricia Smith is a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan. Smith collaborated with Jay L. Zagorsky, who is a senior lecturer for the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, to conduct a study showing the link between economic status and consumption of sugary drinks. The sugary drinks study was conducted using data from the National Longitudinal Surveys, in which 24,000 U.S. adults were surveyed. NLS is sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and tracks samples from the same individuals, often from birth to golden age. Data is recorded over the course of several years, and participants answer hundreds of questions each year on varying topics.

Survey of Sugary Drinks

The sugary drinks survey involved 2 groups of people, each from a different generation. The first group included people who were born between 1957 and 1964. They were asked how often they consumed sugary drinks in the previous week every other year from 2008 to 2016. This group was in their 40’s and 50’s when they were surveyed. The second group of participants was born between 1980 and 1984. They were asked the sugary drink question four times from 2009 to 2015, meaning they were in their 20’s and 30’s when the data was collected.

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Other Factors

Several studies have previously shown the correlation between sugary drinks and lower-income households. NLS recorded data that also involved other factors such as gender, ethnicity, education, and interest in health and nutrition. When studies focus on wealth and status, the focus leads to the understanding of how wealth affects the intake of sugary drinks.

Wealth Vs. Income

There is a misconception that wealth and income are the same. Wealth is merely in relation to resources whereas income refers to only money coming in. An example of this may be a doctor just out of medical school. They have not yet accumulated any assets and are fresh out of school but have a high yearly income.

Breakdown of the Data

The researchers separated participants into 10 equal groups based on income or wealth. Based on the data recorded, the number of consumed sugary drinks goes down as income rises. Additionally, the same pattern was shown when observing the level of wealth. The richest families had on average 2-3 less sugary drinks per week than participants who were in the lowest 10% of wealth or income.

Next, researchers calculated that families who consumed these extra sugary drinks also consumed roughly 1,200 teaspoons of extra sugar. Assuming there is no increase in physical activity and no other dietary changes, data roughly shows 5 and a half pounds annually in weight gain could be the result. Lastly, the data analysis shows how changes in wealth did not impact the intake of sugary beverages. Scientists believe this is because people stuck close to their habits prior to a jump or decrease in income.

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Sugary Drink Tax

It has been suggested that implementing a sugary drink tax, on sodas and other sugary beverages may help to lower intake and therefore lower obesity rates. Some countries and U.S. cities have already begun to impose this tax. The U.K., Mexico, and unsurprisingly, San Fransisco are among the list of places hoping the “sugary drink” tax will help to maintain the overall health of their communities. Adversely, the “sugary drink” tax may backfire because the taxes may fall more heavily on those with lower incomes.

However, lower-income households may cut out sugary drinks altogether and thereby improve health while also avoiding these new taxes.

CDC Findings and Warnings

According to the CDC, and not surprisingly, there is a long list of health risks associated with the consumption of sugary-laden drinks. These include weight gain or obesity, type 2 diabetes, kidney, heart, and (non-alcoholic) liver disease. Tooth decay, cavities, or gum disease. Too much sugar can also cause joint pain or Rheumatoid arthritis. If you already suffer from any of these conditions, excessive sugar intake can cause painful and often damaging flare-ups.

Harvard Public School of Health

Sugary drinks known as “soft drinks” apply to any beverage that has added sugar or other sweeteners. These beverages are the largest source of calories and added sugar in the U.S. diet. When people consume these beverages, they often don’t feel as full as if they had consumed the same caloric intake through foods. Research indicates the consumption of sugary drinks doesn’t offset the amount of food people eat throughout the day, meaning they are essentially adding empty calories to their diet every time they consume a sugary drink.

While soda, or pop, has the worst reputation for our health other sugary drinks include, sports and energy drinks, tonics, certain fruit juices, and lemon or limeade. I personally feel rather than making sugary drinks more expensive, water should just be more affordable. However, I’m no Economics Professor so, I’ll just stick to what I know. Sugary drinks come with all kinds of health risks, and some are advocating for a sugary drink tax.

Furthermore, the hope is to stave off health disorders and obesity. Lastly, some countries and cities have already begun to implement taxing sugary drinks. Do you think this will work?

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  1. Get the facts: Sugar-sweetened beverages and consumption.CDC. Retrieved October 26, 2022.
  2. How to calculate calories from sugar.” Live Strong. Erica Kannall. Retrieved October 26, 2022.
  3. New Report Identifies Root Causes of Health Inequity in the U.S., Outlines Solutions for Communities to Advance Health Equity.” National Academies. January 11, 2017.
  4. About the National Longitudinal Surveys (NLS).” National Longitudinal Surveys. Retrieved October 26, 2022.
  5. Sugary drinks.” Harvard. Retrieved October 26, 2022.
  6. Poorest Americans drink a lot more sugary drinks than the richest – which is why soda taxes could help reduce gaping health inequalities.” The Conversation. Patricia Smith and Jay L. Zagorsky. July 17, 2022.
  7. Sugar and arthritis: Is it bad? (plus foods to avoid).” Very Well Health. Yvelette Stines. January 9, 2021.
  8. Who drinks soda pop? economic status and adult consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. .” Science Direct. Jay L.Zagorsky, et al. August 2020.