Soda Is Cheaper Than Ever, Which Is Terrible News For Global Health

Consumer taxes on Coke and Pepsi, which many governments are considering, could be the answer

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 05, 2017 at 11:12 AM ET

Soda today costs roughly half as much worldwide as it did in 1990, which means people can fill up on twice as many calories and sugars without spending a cent more.

A new study from researchers at the American Cancer Society has uncovered just how much cheaper soda is now in previous decades. It’s down to a mix of factors: Incomes in most countries have increased since 1990, particularly in less wealthy countries. Not only that, in more than half the countries the researchers looked at, the price of soda actually fell. Conglomerates like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have prioritized selling a greater volume cheaply than raising prices — in other words, they banked on people consuming more soda the cheaper it was.

This study only looks at the change in prices and affordability between 1990 and 2016, so it’s not possible to say from this whether consumption really did go up. That said, the researchers argue the existing scientific literature has shown a strong correlation between how much soda people can afford and how much of it they drink.

More Mexican Soda Tax Could Save More Than Billion Dollars In Health Costs

There’s a serious global health risk to soda being too affordable. Sugary sodas are a known driver of the obesity epidemic, which affects nearly 700 million worldwide, along with an additional two billion people who are overweight, and obesity is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some cancers.

In their paper, the researchers say there is a straightforward solution: A soda tax that increases the cost of soda back to, say, its 1990 levels.

The paper examined 82 countries at all levels of economic development, and all but three of them saw soda become more affordable in the past 27 years. China saw the biggest increase in average affordability, which perhaps not entirely coincidentally is in the midst of an explosion in the obesity rate.

A few of the countries included in the study — France, Hungary, and Mexico — did in fact pass soda taxes within the past five years and a number of U.S. cities have implemented them too, but the researchers say it’s still likely too early for the effects of those taxes to show up in their economic data.