Soda Tax

Soda is the latest enemy of the food grabbers. Having been so successful in first forcing us to use trans fats, then forcing us to abandon them; having had their triumph of adding calorie counts to menus and seeing calorie consumption go up; having pushed non-fat foods that load us up with carbs; they are building on the spectacular record of utter complete failure by going to war with soda. If it were not for the vile bubbly, we would all look like Victoria’s Secret models, or something. San Francisco has banned it from public buildings; NYC’s Nanny State mayor is attacking it and everyone wants to tax it.

This is typical of those who love government. Every failure is met not with a reconsideration of their view but with a call for more action. They utterly refuse to believe that government is incapable of making people live good lives.

(And it’s also typical of tax policy. Politicians always want more revenue. An easy way to get it is to tax whatever is unpopular at the moment. Cigarettes were a good target for a while, but they’re maxed out.)

Jonah Lehrer does a good job with the case for, citing a DOA study that claims a soda tax would reduce calorie consumption by 20-40 calories a day. But even his post is being selectively quoted by supporters. He notes that people may make up the calories in other places. He further notes that diet sodas have a tendency to increase calorie consumption.

The scientists argue that fake sugar is dangerous because it subverts a crucial homeostatic mechanism, as the the brain uses the sweetness of a food to keep track of its intake. More sugar implies more calories; the tongue is a natural energy detector. The problem with diet sodas is that they make this system unreliable, so that the presence of of intense sweetness no longer means anything. (And it’s not just rodents: a similar effect has been observed in humans.) The hypothalamus gets confused. The end result is that we lose touch with the energetic needs of our body. Instead of eating to sate a hunger, we just eat. And eat.

Lehrer says this make the case for a complete ban, but I’m not convinced.

Making the case against is Cato. They note five problems with the soda ban:

1) The scientific evidence that soda is making us fat is tenuous at best.

2) Taxes would have to be pretty extreme to measurably cut soda consumption.

3) Past experience is that poor people tend to make up the calories elsewhere and eat even less healthily. In short, the side effect of a soda ban might be doritos at dinner in place of peas.

4) A soda tax is massively regressive. This is true of all “sin” taxes. In another post, they note that rich guy indulgences — Starbucks, for example — are actually worse than soda. So there’s a certain amount of snobbery here in depriving the masses of their opiate while letting the elites keep theirs.

5) It threatens individual choice.

I’m not opposed to sin taxes on alcohol or cigarettes since the link between those and bad health is conclusive. However, obesity is such a complex issue with such nebulous cause, I’m reluctant to have the all-wise all-knowing government jump in and decree what people can and can not consume. As I say all the time — they do not have the track record to earn the benefit of a doubt here.

So should government do nothing? Actually, I somewhat agree with Sullivans’ readers. The best thing the government could do is lift trade restrictions on sugar and stop corn subsidies. The heavy use of HFCS in our diet may not be having an effect on us (studies are inconclusive). But a market distortion that large has to have some negative consequences, no?