To promote health, public health experts and policymakers have proposed excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverage (SSBs) distributors.
Research is needed to examine the ethical implications of SSB taxation.
This analysis finds there is a strong ethical case for SSB excise taxes.
Future research should examine how SSBs influence consumer knowledge and empowerment and the ethical implications of the beverage industry's response to public health policies.
Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxation has emerged as a priority policy for promoting health and funding investments in communities most affected by diet-related disease. There are now 8 U.S. jurisdictions and over 40 countries that have implemented SSB taxes. Evaluations show that these policies reduce SSB consumption and purchasing while raising revenues to fund public health, education, and equity. However, there have been few analyses of the ethical considerations of SSB taxation. Using a framework for evaluating the ethics of public health interventions, this paper considers the ethical aspects of SSB excise taxes with respect to: physical health, psychosocial well-being, equality, informed choice, liberty, social and cultural values, and responsibility. Available evidence suggests there is a strong ethical case for levying SSB excise taxes on manufacturers and distributors. SSB excise taxes reduce consumption and purchasing of SSBs and are expected to meaningfully reduce obesity and diet-related morbidity and mortality. Because SSB taxes are specific to a product and its manufacturers, they are unlikely to harm psychosocial health by stigmatizing people who are overweight. SSB excise taxes should lead to greater equality because the health and social benefits are progressive (i.e., low-income individuals are likely to accrue the largest benefits from the tax, particularly when revenues are spent on health and social equity). Meanwhile, the average consumer cost burden that would result from distributors raising SSB prices is minimally regressive. Regarding liberty, SSB taxes do not eliminate the option of buying SSBs, but if SSB distributors raise SSB prices in response to the tax, it becomes somewhat more expensive to continue purchasing the same amount of SSBs. Meanwhile, the taxes expand beverage options by funding drinking water availability and prompting industry to offer lower sugar SSBs. Furthermore, by averting poor health, SSB taxes should expand overall freedom to pursue one's goals. Informed choice could be facilitated by seeing a higher SSB shelf price (which indicates a drink contains added sugar) and exposure to nutrition education funded with tax revenues. SSB taxation is unlikely to negatively interfere with social or cultural values because taxation would not eliminate having SSBs for special occasions, and SSBs are not a staple of traditional diets. Lastly, SSB taxation attributes responsibility for health in a manner that reflects industry's contribution to obesity and the multisectoral solutions that are needed to prevent diet-related disease.