Yesterday, a California Senate Committee heard testimony on a proposal, Senate Bill 622, to place a $1.28 per-gallon tax on soft drinks in the state. (If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that the state’s tax on the roughly equal-calorie beverage beer is thirty cents per gallon.) To try to cram the idea down the throats of a hostile public–recall that two cities defeated ballot proposals for an equivalent tax last fall–activists have taken to their favorite tactics, hyperbole and bait-and-switch.
Anti-soda activists are out in force blaming the simple pleasures for Californians’ love handles and medical bills, despite little evidence that extracting more money from people’s pockets will slim them down. Indeed, a research team from Yale, Emory, and the University of Washington warned in a recent commentary that “evidence suggests caution in enacting sugar-sweetened beverage taxation legislation with a core purpose of obesity reduction.” Evidence shows that people faced with soda taxes don’t switch to water but instead get their tasty liquid in the form of equal-calorie off-brand sodas, milks, juices, and even beer in response. And it’s not like calorie consumption from soft drinks is surging: A Centers for Disease Control study released last week found that Americans are consuming roughly 40-70 fewer calories from soft drinks per day than ten years ago.
The bait-and-switch comes from promises that a “children’s health promotion fund” will guarantee that revenues will lead to increased healthcare and anti-obesity spending. Unfortunately for California consumers, the evidence from the state’s lottery—by law, profits are put in a fund for education—indicates that new fund contributions will replace, not supplement, general revenue contributions to those programs.
Politicians are able to hide the special interest pet-project games behind the veneer of the “fund,” even if they don’t openly raid it, which they might. Promises of a “health promotion fund” can be undone by a future legislature, and politicians in other jurisdictions have taken expansive views of what basic government services can be paid for by similar “funds.” The proposed tax now will be analyzed by state number-crunchers before being voted on and possibly receiving a vote in the full Senate. Supporters of beverage freedom should watch closely.