Big-government bureaucrats in cash-strapped California are hoping to plug their $25 billion budget gap with sin taxes levied on beverages sweetened with sugar. Before undecided California lawmakers decide whether they will penalize their constituents for enjoying the occasional soda or sports drink, they would be wise to first determine where the sin tax money will end up.
As we noted in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune opinion piece, the tobacco settlements of the late 1990s taught us that money collected for specific health-related purposes can easily be spent on practically anything else:
The money was supposed to be spent on smoking prevention, but the federal Government Accountability Office tracked the money and found that in 2004 just 17 percent of the funds went to health-related programs.
Money is fungible. Just because politicians promise to put it in a prevention fund today does not mean it will not go to wasteful bureaucracy or pork projects tomorrow.
In any event, sin taxes on sweetened drinks have not been proven to change consumers’ behavior or make them healthier. We think this is a bogus theory concocted by “feel-good politicians” who haven’t really put much thought in to their plans for nudging citizens toward healthier choices.
It’s ludicrous for lawmakers to specify what type of calories should be demonized and taxed. After all, a calorie is a calorie. Just ask the Kansas State University nutrition professor who lost 27 pounds over two months last fall while eating only snack foods. His secret? Portion control. Too many activists reject that kind of “personal responsibility” argument, instead advocating changes inthe tax code to shape our diets.
Even Yale professor Kelly Brownell, who fathered the idea of taxing food to fight fat, is telling Time magazine that “nobody has been able to see how people will really respond under these conditions.” Brownell’s red flag should go up for skeptical lawmakers as well.