By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: U-T San Diego
California voters agreed to $6 billion in tax increases through last fall’s Proposition 30. But some state legislators found that hike insufficient to satisfy their insatiable appetite for revenue, so now they’re coming for middle-class Californians’ grocery carts and restaurant tables. State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, wants every Californian to stump up an extra $1.44 per standard 12-pack of soft drinks purchased for the state coffers.
He says that the tax will combat obesity in the state, but there’s no evidence that it will do so. Instead of reducing medical expenses, the tax will only crimp the budgets of Californians and send more money to Sacramento.
Despite the fictional claims of Monning and his allies, soft drinks are not a unique cause of obesity. Consuming more calories than you burn causes obesity. Government data demonstrate that soft drinks provide only 7 percent of our daily calories.
The fundamental problem with soda taxes is that they don’t address the causes of obesity. Changes in society that we rightly credit for making our working lives easier and easing our home lives have reduced the amount of calories we expend in daily life. Office jobs, expansive suburban communities (cars have replaced short walks), and labor-saving devices from power lawn mowers to washing machines all make our lives better, but the price is less physical activity and possibly more obesity.
And even on the “calories in” side of the equation, a soda tax doesn’t address the problem appropriately. A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that a 40 percent sales tax on soda – in the ballpark of Monning’s proposed tax – would reduce calorie intake by a trivial amount. It turns out that rather than choosing water, people drink something else with equal calories, like juice or milk. By doing so, they dodge the intent of the tax and don’t lose weight.
This substitution led the researchers to find another surprising result: The lowest-income consumers were most adept at switching products and did not reduce their calorie consumption.
Instead of receiving a state-sponsored weight-loss program lubricated with sparkling tap water, the poorest consumers buy the same amount of calories, just from beverages they like less. Since the weight of the tax falls disproportionately on lower-income people anyway, the failure to show benefits makes soda taxes doubly regressive, in choices as well as prices – an unsavory reality that even the tax’s promoters acknowledge.
Obesity should not be fought by government with taxes and bans that are discriminatory and prejudicial. That is why the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the association of certified nutrition professionals, affirms that “the total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of healthy eating.” By focusing on regulatory holy wars against single products rather than holistic, life choices steeped in personal responsibility, the proponents of soda taxes make a grave mistake.
Research has found that people lose weight when they make a personal commitment to do so. The record of state mandates and taxes is far worse.