why you can’t tax your way to better health

Soda taxes can curb consumption of sugary drinks, but their benefits are vastly oversold and the problems we're facing need a more holistic approach.
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With the drama of the Great Pop-Pocalypse still fresh in most science bloggers’ minds, it seems like a good idea to visit another debate about how bad sugary soft drinks are for your health and whether the companies or their customers are the ones responsible for the disturbing obesity rates in the developed world. As quite a few of the denizens of ScienceBlogs were growling about Pepsi’s complicity in people’s bad diets and health habits, some lawmakers have been trying to resurrect the often mentioned idea of a tax on every teaspoon of sugar added to cans of soda, hoping to discourage consumption of carbonated, sugary beverages and using the cash to fund programs to promote healthy living, as well as plug up the occasional budgetary hole. And as you might imagine, companies that make soda are bitterly opposed to the idea, as are those who feel that a government shouldn’t be imposing its will on people’s diets, no matter how good the lawmakers’ intentions.

While lobbying groups for Coke, Pepsi and 7-Up are doing what big industries do best, threaten officials with dire predictions of how many jobs would be lost should anything happen to their revenue streams, they don’t have that much to lose from a soda tax. Since the proposed rate would raise the price of a can of pop by only ten cents, the costs could be easily passed on to customers who would more than likely be willing to pay the extra dollar or two per case. And herein lies the problem. As with any so-called vice tax, surcharges on sugary soft drinks would actually give people the license to drink as much as they do rather than discourage them. A good parallel would be smokers who cite the soaring taxes they have to pay for their cigarettes when justifying their habit. Likewise, groups funded by these taxes and settlements from tobacco companies actually rely on people to keep smoking and paying those taxes because it’s their life blood. When you start using taxes for a new program which will pay salaries, or to plug up budgetary shortfalls, even the most noble goal behind it is quickly forgotten because the money becomes more important than the tax’s original purpose.

On top of that, trying to target soda to improve the nation’s health is akin to trying to balance the federal budget with a personal check. It’s just not enough. Considering that some 66% of Americans are either overweight or obese, generating hundreds of billions of dollars in medical expenses every year and shaving a decade or so off their lives while knowing full well that their terrible food and exercise habits are slowly killing them, a major change to the status quo requires a lot more than raising a price of a can of pop by a few cents. You will need health education from an early age, mandates on making sure school cafeterias serve healthy foods instead of cheap, calorie dense, processed proteins and starches, funding PE classes to keep kids active and instill good habits in them throughout their formative years, and encourage companies to make healthier products by changing the demands of their future customers. This would take an entire generation and require a whole lot of cash and consistent effort, but it would make an enormous difference in reducing cases of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and take a huge strain off our already insanely expensive and overtaxed healthcare system, and it’s a project that lawmakers don’t seem to be willing to tackle.

The saddest thing about the state of the American waistline is that we already have all the components to live longer, healthier lives as a country. We have programs that teach portion control and good exercise habits for any age and metabolism. We have plenty of gyms and stores where basic exercise equipment is sold. All the tools for a better quality of life are there, but Americans just choose not to use them, opting instead to save a few bucks on cheap, greasy fast food at the expense of their health and life expectancy. No vice tax is going to solve that attitude and we can only hope that we’ll have a better time with future generations, which could still be taught to manage their weight and eating habits. Disturbingly, they’ll have plenty of examples of what might happen to them if they don’t and if it doesn’t worry them now, they need to know why it should…

# health // lawmakers / public health / taxes

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