It seems that Yale University’s Kelly “Twinkie Tax” Brownell has had an epiphany. Alas, it is not that soda taxes make a pathetically small impact on obesity. In response to two new studies questioning whether so-called “food deserts”—the idea that poor people lack access to healthy food—even exist, Brownell told The New York Times “[If] you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking.”
We’ve questioned “food deserts” before, and we’re glad Brownell seems to be coming around. But it’s a curious statement from him given that in the past he reportedly supported a federal tax subsidy program for businesses in so-called “food deserts” that made significant revenue from selling fruits and veggies. He also told the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action Healthletter that “we […] have too little access to healthy foods.” But now, with evidence mounting that “food deserts” aren’t the major factor in obesity that some think they are, Brownell apparently has given up the carrot.
The question now becomes how long he can maintain the myth of the effective stick. Recent studies have shown the much-vaunted soda tax he endorses will reduce daily calorie intake by nine, twelve, or even as many as three calories per day. (For those keeping score at home, all those effects are fractions of a percent of the typical adult’s dietary energy intake.)
It’s wishful thinking to imagine that attacking only one of the many causes of obesity will solve a complex problem. But it’s simply blind to think that a policy that research consistently shows will not solve the problem will in fact solve the problem. Brownell has claimed that “society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty” before adopting obesity-fighting policy. The “scientific certainty” appears to be in on healthy food access, and it didn’t go Brownell’s way. We eagerly await (but aren’t holding our breath for) Brownell’s similar realization that the soda tax won’t “change obesity.”