In California — the land of dubious ballot initiatives, prohibitionist stealth taxes, and 9.4 percent unemployment — a legislative committee has chosen to ignore the results of two local votes and press forward to add a $1.28 per gallon tax to soft drinks. The state Senate Committee on Governance and Finance voted to advance the tax.
The bill’s supporters hope the tax will “eradicate” obesity, to quote one particularly enthusiastic San Franciscan blog headline. Science says it will do no such thing, however. A recent commentary in a scold-friendly policy journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned, “Evidence suggests caution in enacting sugar-sweetened beverage taxation legislation with a core purpose of obesity reduction.”
Instead of switching beverage choices to zero-calorie drink scold-approved water, scientific studies and lived experience indicate that people respond to soda taxes by fleeing jurisdictions to shop elsewhere or replacing soft drinks with equally caloric juices, milks, and even alcoholic drinks. Multiple studies confirm that these effects render any reduction in calorie consumption—and therefore obesity reduction—trivial at best.
Even if California (which just passed a massive tax increase last November) is strapped for cash, the tax has more problems than benefits. The tax falls on the poorest Californians with the most severity, which is why Kelly “Twinkie tax” Brownell’s colleagues are desperately seeking to “reframe” that particular issue. Combine that with a lack of health benefits, and you get a terrible proposal that eats the grocery budgets of the working classes to salve the consciences of the latte loophole crowd. (Paging C.S. Lewis.)