A majority of Americans support taxing sugary drinks to fund preschool and children’s health programs, a new poll from POLITICO and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found.
Also read, Beverage company execs say soda taxes are bad for business.
The results, released Thursday morning, indicate a higher level of support than in past national polls, which have largely found that a majority of Americans oppose soda taxes, even as they have gained in popularity as local officials look for ways to raise revenue. Past polling has measured public support for such taxes without tying them to programs like preschool.
Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, and a handful of other jurisdictions have already imposed so-called sin taxes on sugary beverages.
The POLITICO-Harvard poll found that 57 percent of respondents supported taxing soda and other sugary drinks to raise money for preschool and children’s health programs and to help address the problem of obesity, while 39 percent opposed the idea and 4 percent either did not have an opinion or did not respond to the question.
Support broke down along political party lines. Democrats were the most supportive of such taxes (63-32 percent), then independents (57-39 percent) followed by Republicans (44-53 percent).
The POLITICO-Harvard poll broadly found that Americans are deeply divided on a number of hot-button food policy topics, including whether to ban sugary drinks from the food stamp program and whether restaurants should be required to post calorie counts on menus.
Taxing sugary drinks to fund education and health programs geared toward children was one of the only areas in the food policy sphere in which the survey found a clear majority. Another was on the question of whether able-bodied adults without young children should have to work to qualify for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (74-22 percent in favor).
The poll, conducted by SSRS between Aug. 30 and Sept. 3, consisted of a nationally representative sample of 1,016 adults, though the food policy questions were posed to roughly half that sample (499 adults). The margin of error was 5.3 percent.
The American Beverage Association, a staunch critic of soda taxes, argued in response to the poll's results that such levies are much less popular after people learn more about them.
"When people have been informed about the damage these taxes cause, public opinion has shifted — this happened in Cook County [Ill.], where 87 percent of residents oppose the tax; in Philadelphia, where nearly 60 percent of residents oppose the tax; and in Santa Fe [N.M.], where voters turned out ... to reject the tax by an almost 20-point margin at the ballot box," said Lauren Kane, an spokeswoman for the group.
POLITICO asked Parke Wilde, a food and agriculture economist at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, to review the poll's results. He said he was surprised by the high level of support for sugary drink taxes because past polls of various sizes have shown the public does not support soda taxes. In 2012, for example, a large Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll found 2-to-1 opposition to the idea of taxing sugary drinks and candy.
Wilde hypothesized that the support shown in the POLITICO-Harvard poll may have been buoyed by the fact the question was tied to the programs the levy would support. It is an interesting way to pose the question, he said, because there is much more of a focus in Congress and elsewhere about how to pay for new programs without dipping into existing government funds. Plus, Philadelphia and cities in California's Bay Area have used their taxes to support children's programs, so there is precedent for having a soda tax serve as a funding mechanism. Past polls tended to focus on taxes in isolation.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that advocates for taxes on sugary beverages, said the POLITICO-Harvard poll shows how the public is on board with the idea.
"I'm not surprised," said Jim O'Hara, director of health promotion policy at CSPI. "I think the public understands the health risks of excessive consumption of sugary drinks. I think the poll reflects that understanding."
Wilde also pointed out that some of the closest margins in the poll did not break along party lines.
The poll found a nearly even split between those in favor of and those opposed to the idea of banning sugary drinks from SNAP (47-51 percent), for example. But the results on that question were almost as evenly divided according to political affiliation: Independents were most in favor (51-48 percent), with Republicans (47-52 percent) and Democrats (43-55 percent) against it.
“The public is very divided on removing sugar-sweetened beverages from sugary drinks from SNAP,” he noted. “It’s interesting that the divide has nothing to do with partisan politics.”
The POLITICO-Harvard poll also found strong support for greater local control over school nutrition standards. The question was posed like this: “School lunch programs serve nearly 30 million American children each day and are largely funded with federal tax dollars. Do you support the federal government regulating how much whole grains, sugar and fat, fruits and vegetables are in public school lunches, or should local districts be able to decide their own lunch standards?”
Overall, 63 percent of respondents said they were in favor of local school districts being given the power to decide. A much stronger majority of Republicans supported local control (79-21 percent), but Democrats were also in favor (51-44 percent, with 5 percent saying they did not know or refusing to answer). Independents also backed it (62-35 percent).
Respondents were evenly split (49-49 percent) on whether restaurants should be mandated to post calorie counts on their menus — something that was required by a provision in the Affordable Care Act but has yet to take effect as formal policy. (As POLITICO and others have reported, restaurants and grocery stores had already begun to post calorie information ahead of the compliance date, and many left the disclosures in place after the Trump administration delayed implementation.) A majority of Democrats (57-43 percent) supported menu labeling, while Republicans were opposed (41-57 percent) and independents too but by a much closer margin (48-50 percent).
Lastly, respondents were divided into three groups of equal size on whether the federal government should be doing more on the regulatory front to combat the obesity epidemic and help people improve their diet: 31 percent said more should be done, 30 percent said the government ought to do less on this issue, and 36 percent said the level of regulatory involvement should stay the same.
SOURCE Helena Bottemiller Evich, POLITICO
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