Putting a Lid on Soda Taxes

November 16, 2014 1:40 am11 comments

by Rachel Bellwoar

For many, drinking multiple cups of coffee a day is not unusual. Substitute Coca-Cola for coffee and you have my daily grind. I am a heavy soda consumer, the kind of girl who goes to Wawa every day, buys an extra-large ICEE and finishes it. I don’t like candy, am an infrequent enjoyer of cake and cookies, rarely eat chocolate, and truly lack any inclination for alcohol or smokes. Yet my love of soda—let alone the giant size cups—always earns me the most disapproving looks and lectures. Soda isn’t healthy, my teeth enamel will be doomed, think of the caffeine and sugar, etc.

If all the judgment wasn’t enough, my wallet is now at risk. Although an entire coast line away, a “soda tax” was invoked Nov. 5 in Berkeley, California that will charge an extra cent per ounce on various sugary soft drinks. This marks the first city to successfully implement a soda tax, but far from the first location to attempt such a law.

Parvati Shallow mentions two similar efforts that occurred only a state border away in her article for CBS News: “In 2010, then New York Gov. David Paterson sought a penny-an-ounce ‘fat tax’ on soda and other sugary drinks,” while back in 2013 “…New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried a different approach by banning the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, delis and other outlets.” Both examples were unsuccessful but as Frances Dinkelspiel notes, an undaunted Bloomberg, now the “Former New York Mayor… spent $657,000 to help pass the soda tax,” in Berkeley and has “…said he would… look to help other municipalities.”

Certainly this milestone in California will reinvigorate the efforts of those who feel this tax should be expanded to other cities and states. Perhaps even Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter will revamp the idea after watching it get shut down in 2010 and ’11.

Kelly Phillips Erb remarks in an essay for Forbes that there’s been “…all kinds of rationale about the imposition of a sin tax at any given time. Realistically, it comes down to raising revenue not preventing bad behavior; if the bad behavior stopped, the revenue stream would dry up and nobody actually wants that.” Mayor Nutter can’t be faulted for wanting to raise school funds, but doing so turns attention away from moral objectives concerning healthy living, to finding another new money source.

I have to ask though: soda? Really? Is this America’s primary threat? Surely there are worse, more stereotypical young adult products I could be inflicting on my body than high-fructose corn syrup. I realize my beverage lifestyle is not FDA approved. I also recognize there are serious health risks involved, like higher rates of obesity or greater chances of developing diabetes. Personally, though, as a non-risk taker, this is my splurge. Where other bad diet choices are concerned I am willing to try giving up or cutting down but soda’s my exception. I shouldn’t have to be specifically punished income-wise for loving Coca-Cola. After a long day, there’s really nothing better and I’m not forfeiting this treat because of public disapproval.

Some—like Jeff Ritterman, MD in a blog entryprefer to admonish using the technique of painting a moralized image, “of an empowered community insisting that the health of its children come before the profits of transnational corporations.” Yes, soda is a mega-corporation, but is it the one we want to spend all our energy and dollars going after? To drink their product is a preference or decision where the potential effects lie on the drinker alone. The same cannot be said of the products defended by other mega-corporations—like the NRA or Big Alcohol—where people can be directly hurt by individuals’ decisions to use or consume them.

Also since the tax, many parallels have been made between Big Soda and Big Tobacco, since personal choice is a key defense employed by both and similar strategies have been utilized by their respective dissenters to decrease intake. Generally I do not find this to be a fair comparison. Unlike breathing in soda fizz, regular contact with secondhand smoke can lead to the same health consequences as smoking cigarettes directly.

Additionally, nicotine is not a universally found ingredient in foods at your local grocery store. Sugar is. A whole food category—junk food—has been set aside to designate sugary items, so what’s stopping society from demonizing Oreos or Lucky Charms? Why are soft drinks being isolated from the rest? Increased taxes aren’t new and we’ve grudgingly had to accept them before but it’s the singling out of soda—a beloved, currently affordable product—getting treated like the lone problem that seems wrong and unfair.

If, however, New York Assemblyman Karim Camera wants to have health warning labels posted on soft drink cans and bottles, similar to the Surgeon General warning that appears on cigarette packs, I’m ok with that. Camera’s been promoting the idea since Berkeley’s triumph, and is quoted as saying, “People in the beverage industry at the time [referring to Paterson’s unsuccessful ‘fat tax’] said, ‘We don’t need a tax. We need education.’ My proposal calls for education.”

Granted, I feel the message about soda is already fairly widespread, but he might be right. I don’t mind if my favorite beverage sports a new addition that leads people to think twice, as long as it’s not a raised price sticker.

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