Federal preemption of taxes on state and local sugar-sweetened beverages is not warranted

Image of top of soda can

NEW YORK and BOSTON (Aug. 29, 2017)—Federal, state, and local governments each have a role to play in protecting health. Federal and state government, however, can alter or hinder state and local activity through a legal mechanism called preemption – when a higher level of government blocks the action of a lower level of government. An increase in state preemption of local food policies led a research team to assess whether preemption of taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) by the federal government would be likely based on Congress’s historical rationales for preempting taxes.

SSBs are associated with obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. As of June 2017, eight U.S. cities have enacted SSB taxes aimed at reducing consumption, and several other states and municipalities are considering them. Excise taxes can reduce consumption, improve health, and raise revenue for budget-constrained governments.

The research team, from New York University’s College of Global Public Health (NYU CGPH) and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, reviewed legislative histories of federal bills and laws that had a central and express purpose of preempting state taxes. The goal was to determine if historical rationales for preempting taxes applied in the case of SSB taxes.

The study, published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that Congress historically preempted state taxes to ensure they did not interfere with the goals of national programs or the proper functioning of interstate commerce. The authors found that neither of these justifications applies to SSB excise taxes.

“Preemption of public health policies, and specifically SSB taxes, undermines local control, challenges the financial stability of local governments, and extinguishes grassroots movements. SSB taxes do not interfere with federally-funded national programs or put efficient interstate activity at risk; thus, there is a dearth of legal or historic precedent to justify Congress preempting them,” said Jennifer L. Pomeranz, assistant professor and interim chair, Public Health Policy and Management at NYU CGPH. “Advocates and state and local policymakers should be vigilant to preserve their powers to tax and safeguard the population’s health,” she said.

“In recent work, we have identified sugar-sweetened beverage consumption as one of the leading dietary priorities for reducing diabetes, stroke and heart disease deaths among Americans. There are individual health burdens and healthcare costs associated with SSB consumption, with mounting related health burdens and healthcare costs for the nation. SSB taxes should be used as a powerful tool to save lives, raise revenue and reduce healthcare costs,” said last author Renata Micha, Ph.D., research associate professor at the Friedman School.

An additional author on the study is Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

This study was supported by an award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (R01HL130735). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. For conflicts of interest disclosure, please see the study.         

Pomeranz, J.L., Mozaffarian, D., & Micha R. (2017). The Potential for Federal Preemption of State and Local Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Taxes. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published online on August 29, 2017. 
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2017.06.026


NYU College of Global Public Health:

At the College of Global Public Health (CGPH) at New York University (NYU), we are preparing the next generation of public health pioneers with the critical thinking skills, acumen and entrepreneurial approaches necessary to reinvent the public health paradigm. Devoted to employing a nontraditional, inter-disciplinary model, CGPH aims to improve health worldwide through a unique blend of global public health studies, research and practice. CGPH is located in the heart of New York City and extends to NYU’s global network on six continents. Innovation is at the core of our ambitious approach, thinking and teaching.  http://publichealth.nyu.edu/

About the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school’s eight degree programs – which focus on questions relating to nutrition and chronic diseases, molecular nutrition, agriculture and sustainability, food security, humanitarian assistance, public health nutrition, and food policy and economics – are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy.

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