Do Two California Cities Determine the Fate of Beverage Freedom?

The analogy that soda is to obesity as tobacco is to tobacco-related illnesses is a one that is as overused as it is false. Tobacco is the undisputed cause of tobacco-related illness; obesity is caused by everything from overeating to under-sleeping. When the analogy is used to justify regulations like New York City’s reviled big-soda ban, it is insidious. When it is used to place the fate of food freedom on a vote in two small California cities, it is ripe for parody.

And that is exactly what The New York Times’ resident food scold and amateur epidemiologist, Mark Bittman, has done in his most recent column. Bittman, a supporter of a tax-and-subsidy regime for each of the 38,000-plus items in the standard grocery store — surely a byzantine scheme — is eager to see if two small California cities will approve taxes on soda and other sweet drinks. He hopes that from those cities will raise a flood of taxes on drinks he doesn’t like. And best yet, he predicts we’ll all be grateful to whichever city first punishes us for our own good.

To which we say one word: Nonsense. First, it’s not at all clear that even California — land of the backfiring ballot initiative — is ready to surrender the freedom to sip on a sweet drink. Both the San Diego Union-Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle have advised “no” votes, with the Union-Tribune going as far as to call the tax plans “scams.”

And even if the taxes pass the first hurdle, the rest of the nation poses a formidable wall. National polls consistently show firm opposition to punishing soda consumers with taxes. Revulsion at the bureaucrats’ unanimous cram-down of the New York City soda ban should serve as an additional warning.

People have good reasons to remain skeptical of these taxes. Evidence suggests that soda taxes will provide minimal calorie reductions (we’ve seen estimates of three, nine, and twelve calories per day, less than one percent of a typical dietary intake), indicating that soda taxes do not effectively fight obesity. And there’s evidence from the experience of state “education lotteries” that revenue from these taxes will pad budgets rather than increase spending on health services.

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