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Soda tax: A lot of froth over freedom

12-Oct-2009
Last updated on 13-Oct-2009 at 17:38 GMT

Is taxing soda really an evil plan to curb your individual freedom? Conspiracy theories aside, perhaps it’s simply a sensible scheme to tackle obesity when personal choice has failed.

Government leaders in the United States are yet again considering imposing a tax on sugary drinks. But whenever the idea is raised, advocates face loud opposition from those who want the freedom to have unlimited cheap supplies of Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that soda is synonymous with freedom.

For the first time in the nation’s history, Americans have been warned that their children could have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight and more than one-third are obese. Perhaps many have heard these statistics so often that they fail to shock anymore – but it is clear that right now most Americans are making bad dietary choices.

And let’s be frank, no one is talking about banning soda. Nutrition experts agree that soda, as well as sweet or fatty foods, can be included as part of a balanced diet. The key is moderation. No, most of the soda tax talk is about a tax of around a penny per ounce – which means that we’d pay around 16 cents more for a 500ml bottle. It seems like an outrageous jump to link a 16-cent price increase on a non-essential product with an attack on personal freedom.

Health experts claim that on top of cutting soda consumption and obesity rates, such a tax could generate $14.9bn in the first year alone, and the revenue could be used to help fund obesity prevention programs, as well as contribute to spiraling obesity-related health care costs. Perhaps such targeted use of the proceeds could help sway public opinion, considering that treating obesity-related diseases cost the tax payer nearly ten times this amount last year, a hefty $147bn, according to the Institute of Medicine.

But some members of the beverage industry are still trying to deflect attention from the fact that we consume far too many calories by telling us to get out and move more. Coca-Cola’s CEO Muhtar Kent wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week: “If we're genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it's not just about calories in. It's also about calories out.”

Sure, soda may not be the only cause of obesity, but it is a large part of the problem. Kent points out that soft drinks, sweetened waters, energy drinks and sports drinks contribute 5.5 percent of the average American’s energy intake. He adds that he finds it difficult to understand why his industry is targeted when 94.5 percent of calories come from elsewhere. Um, excuse me Mr. Kent, but doesn’t 5.5 percent seem like quite a lot of calories to consume for no nutritional benefit?

To burn off the 200 calories in a 16 oz. bottle of Coke, for example, a 155lb person would have to walk at a ‘very brisk pace’ for about 42 minutes, according to the nutrition and fitness website Nutristrategy.com.

Soda is also a much less complex target for taxation than fatty snacks. Look at Illinois, where higher taxes on chocolate bars exclude those that contain flour, meaning that Kit Kat bars are not considered to be candy. In the UK too, a higher tax rate applies to cookies but not to cakes, a situation that led to a drawn-out legal debate over the question ‘what is a cake?’

Some argue that taxing soft drinks would not reduce consumption anyway. States that have repealed a soda or snack tax are 13 percent more likely to have had a high relative increase in obesity – but surely the strongest indicator that a tax could lead to less soda consumption comes from the beverage industry itself; the attention it is giving this debate shows that it is worried.

Let’s also be honest here: taxes work. As soda tax supporters have repeatedly pointed out, one of the most successful public health policies of all time was to heavily tax tobacco, with the result that the number of smokers declined from 42.4 percent of the population in 1965 to under 20 percent by 2007.

There is no freedom in ill-health and premature death. It’s time to accept that we need to drink less soda and that taxing it might help. Cutting back won’t kill you. In fact, you may just be free to live a little longer.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

She also thinks that nothing hits the spot quite like an ice-cold orange soda on a hot day.

If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas 'at' decisionnews.com.

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