Sometimes, bad ideas just won’t die. A perennial favorite is the sin tax on soft drinks, and with state legislatures convening across the country for their new sessions, they’re sprouting like weeds. Despite considerable evidence that soda taxes will not reduce obesity — reducing average daily calorie intake by less than one percent qualifies as an optimistic estimate — we have seen soda taxes proposed in the following states: Nebraska, Texas, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Oregon.
Other states may choose to be more invasive. Massachusetts also would slap a punitive tax on candy; Connecticut has proposed taxing soda and so-called “junk food” at retail stores and upping the tax on restaurant meals. This comes shortly after the government of Denmark discovered that taxing “bad” food was too complicated and served to drive too many shoppers to bordering countries for the country’s “fat tax” to be worth keeping.
Good luck classifying every single one of the 38,000 items in the typical grocery store as “good” or “bad.” And even if it were possible and people wouldn’t just run for the state line, there’s a reason the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics holds that “the total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of a healthful eating style.” By tarring single food items that aren’t the cause of obesity — soft drinks provide only seven percent of our daily calorie intake, per government data — activists risk creating seeming license to splurge on other vices. One study found that people responded to a soda tax by buying more beer.
People don’t appear hospitable to the tax-code diet, either. A recent national poll by the Associated Press found 59 percent of Americans rejected sin taxes on unhealthy foods. And it’s not just a right-wing view: liberal Richmond, California voted down a soda tax by a margin of two to one last November. Americans don’t want soda taxes, and they won’t work. We’ll see shortly whether states are willing to listen to their people and to reason.