Aiming to combat the obesity epidemic in New York, Gov. David Paterson has recommended an 18% tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks and a few other sweetened beverages. Unfortunately, the proposed tax is inconsistent with the facts about what causes obesity. It also sets an alarming precedent for taxing foods deemed "bad" by government officials -- further increasing the cost of living in the state -- particularly for the least affluent citizens.
•First, there is no scientific basis for singling out sugar-sweetened soda and certain fruit drinks as a primary underlying cause of obesity. So many Americans these days far exceed their ideal weight because they consume too many calories from all types of foods and beverages -- and do not dedicate sufficient effort to burning calories through exercise. Sugar-sweetened sodas don't make you fatter than eating too much meat, bread, potatoes, or anything else. The old adage "for every complex problem there is a simple solution -- and it never works" comes to mind here. It is always easier to zero in on one alleged villain and assume the problem is solved.
•Second, taxing soda sets up a precedent for taxing myriad foods considered "bad" by popular wisdom. Can we expect taxes next on cake, cookies, candy, and pizza? If food with high sugar or fat content is "bad" and deserving of punitive regulatory action, to be consistent will we tax orange juice (very high in sugar) and avocados (a plentiful source of fat)? Should we tax everything except tofu and spinach?
•Third, when the soda tax is examined closely -- given that it will have zero net effect on reducing obesity -- it must be perceived as another attempt to raise revenue for a financially strapped state. The Governor estimates that the soda tax will bring in $404 million the first year and $539 million annually after that. What's not to like about that if you are trying to balance a budget? But the bad news is that this influx of cash has nothing to do with fighting obesity and enhancing health.
There is, however, some good news about the proposed soda tax: Polls show that New Yorkers oppose this useless and regressive tax by nearly a 2:1 margin. Presumably, citizens recognize that obesity is a very serious health risk -- requiring serious solutions, not quick, ineffective regulatory fixes.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is President of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).