The prospect of a trillion-dollar healthcare overhaul has Congress looking under couch cushions to find enough new revenue to pay the bill.
One suggestion is raising billions of dollars through “lifestyle taxes” on food, alcohol, and soft drinks. Not only would taxing drinks generate a new revenue stream, but supporters claim that it would also drive down medical costs by reducing rates of obesity.
That sounds good in theory, but falls flat in practice. Evidence demonstrates that arbitrary taxes will not reduce healthcare costs. Rather, lifestyle taxes represent another “get rich quick” scheme by Congress, whose members don’t approve of many of its constituents’ lifestyles.
The sudden rise of beverage tax evangelism is rooted in “for your own good” intervention that involves locking up other people’s liquor cabinets, or confiscating salt shakers, and installing an IRS bean counter into every vending machine.
It’s the kind of politics that thinks that your decisions about what to eat and drink are better left to a few self-appointed activist groups in Washington.
The tax code shouldn’t be a tool for social engineering. Nor should the tax code be used to punish “bad” food choices under the guise of doing it “for the children.”
Here’s what proponents of these lifestyle taxes aren’t telling you: Taxing soft drinks isn’t going to cure America’s obesity “epidemic.”
There’s not a single compelling study that suggests taxing sodas at the level being discussed affects levels of obesity. An analysis this year concluded that, to actually make a dent in the obesity rate, Congress would need a 1,200 percent tax on soda. That means a 75 cent can of soda would be taxed $9. (Better hope the vending machine takes bills.)
These findings aren’t surprising. Academic research has discarded the notion that sugary drinks cause obesity. Harvard researchers recently found that “there was not a strong association” between weight gain and the intake of snack foods, including sugary drinks. Last year, a review of the bulk of research on the issue found virtually no association between consumption of beverages and children’s weight.
Advocates of beverage taxes rarely talk about the fact that their taxes will hurt low-income Americans the most. That’s because poorer Americans spend a greater percentage of their income on food and drink than high-income consumers.
The invasive philosophy behind lifestyle taxes is nothing new to the administration.
Cass Sunstein, recently nominated to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, demonstrates another example of the government butting into Americans’ personal choices. Sunstein co-wrote the book Nudge, which argues that government regulations should intervene and “nudge” us towards making government-approved lifestyle choices-namely, what Sunstein and his ilk decide is best for us.
And while Sunstein suggests incremental “nudges,” it would seem the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new director Thomas Frieden supports knockdown, drag-out fights in the name of turning private choices into a matter of public health.
Frieden was widely known as New York City’s command-and-control Health Commissioner until he took the helm at the CDC in June. And at the CDC Frieden hasn’t wasted any time in his new, national position, calling for a soda tax at a national obesity conference last month.
Radicals like Frieden point to the war on smoking as a campaign to emulate, but they ignore one key point: Food is not tobacco. There’s no such thing as second-hand soda or salt.
Will taxing us for our personal choices make us healthier? Fat chance.
These taxes need to be stopped before they begin, or the only barrier between the government and our personal choices will be a politician’s imagination.
J. Justin Wilson is the Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.