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Beverage Taxes

July 27, 2010

Fifty years from now, scientists and public health officials are going to look back and say: “Damn, we really should have known …” 

…that excessive use of pesticides was poisoning people. 

…that low-level radiation from cell phones was harmful. 

…that microwave ovens volatilized harmful chemicals from plastic containers. 

…that football caused too many concussions. 

One thing that they aren’t going to say is: “Boy, it’s a really good thing that we slapped heavy taxes on beverages sweetened with sugar.” 

Some smart and well-intentioned people, including our current state health commissioner, are convinced that soft drinks are the number one public health threat. (The Paterson administration today advanced a new, expanded sugar tax on beverages including soda, coffee and tea.) 

If given a choice between a double cheese bacon burger, super-sized fries with extra salt and a soda, they’ll say that the soda is worst of all. It’s even worse than an ice cream Sunday lathered in chocolate and covered with candy sprinkles. 

The argument revolves around the notion that soft drink calories are “empty” calories that only pack on the pounds. People don’t know what they are doing when they consume a sugared beverage – it’s insidious. It’s like, well, drinking a glass of gelatinous fat. 

We’re sorry, but we’re just not buying this argument. And here’s why: 

No single food or beverage makes you obese. Instead, you get fat because you overeat and don’t exercise enough. 

That’s the simple and inarguable truth. 

It’s not the soda you had today. It’s not the iced tea with a teaspoon of sugar, or the glass of lemonade. It’s not even the bacon burger or ice cream Sunday that has many times more sugar and fat than a soda. Instead, it’s everything you consume in a given day. 

This is also true:  Government can’t help you with your waistline. It’s up to you.   

It’s an individual’s responsibility to watch his or her consumption of sugared beverages along with everything else he or she consumes. 

Our well-intentioned public health advocates are wrong. Government officials can and should provide accurate dietary information to people, but they should not try to influence their decisions with special taxes applied to one product and not another.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    July 27, 2010 12:08 PM

    cough cough

    We do it with booze, we do it with tobacco, why not do it with all disease producing substances/behaviors? tax the hell out of ’em!

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 27, 2010 1:44 PM

    I have a cigar in one hand and a margarita in the other, and I don’t think either are too scary.

    No more taxes please.

  3. societax permalink
    July 28, 2010 12:39 AM

    NT2: You either have to reconsider your position on the taxation-as-influence issue or be prepared to overhaul the entire tax code. Anonymous #1 is correct (re tobacco, booze) that we tax products based on societal interest in promoting or discouraging both consumption and production. For example, we provide tax deductions or credits for energy-efficient appliances and fuel-efficient cars. We provide special tax breaks for agricultural producers. Indeed, you name it, there’s a tax provision promoting or discouraging it.

    The tax code is a giant social-engineering mechanism, which is why politicians who claim to be free-marketeers are essentially liars. In a truly free market, the tax code would be completely neutral regarding all aspects of the market. Politicians looking to give tax breaks or incentives to promote policy — e.g., investment, employment and job training, energy production, agriculture and land use, ethanol, you-name-it — are inserting government into the market to change the way it operates and how individuals behave. As a result, it no longer is ‘free’ in the way swooning free-marketeers claim.

    As for the ill-effects of high fructose corn syrup, the main culprit in many sweetened products:

    • July 28, 2010 4:37 PM

      Dear Sociotax:

      First, let us say this: We worship you. Your response was delightful. It is
      precisely the kind of dialogue we dreamed of when we started this blog:
      Thoughtful, informed, a little edgy, but not snarky. Thank you. Thank you.
      Thank you.

      Now our riposte:

      We’re not against sin taxes. We do not oppose social engineering with tax
      policy as long as the logic is truly compelling.

      In this regard, a very strong case can be made for taxing the hell out of
      tobacco. It causes cancer and emphysema in those who smoke and also those
      who breathe it second hand. Moreover, there’s no “fine in moderation”
      argument. No amount of smoking is ok.

      With regard to alcohol, it causes health problems, too. But we will go down
      fighting over the point that it can be used in moderation without
      significant health or societal problems. (We do so love our wine at dinner
      and beer at ball games.) Still, because alcohol it is so pervasively abused
      with catastrophic consequences (DWI) we would probably support levels of
      taxation that deterred consumption but did not encourage excessive tax

      However, when it comes to sugared beverages, we have a different view. We
      simply don’t believe there is an intrinsic problem with a soda or iced tea
      sweetened with sugar. We understand, of course, that sweetened beverages can
      indeed be a problem with those who are overweight. But that is true of
      everything they consume. We don’t see how or why the state should draw the
      line on soda, coffee and tea. Again, we ask: Why these beverages and not
      candy, ice cream, cheese cake and other foods that contain higher amounts of
      sugar and fat?

      Are we wrong on this? Are we being unreasonable?



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