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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Taxing Soda Makes Government Fat

Nanny-state soda taxes trample freedom and incentivize people to eat even less healthy food.

Next week, four cities are holding ballot measures on soda taxes (i.e. taxes on many sugar-sweetened beverages).

Not surprisingly, the four cities are far-left havens, including the California cities of Albany, Oakland, and San Francisco, as well as Boulder, Colorado. In 2014, voters in Berkeley, California, passed a soda tax, and this past June, the Philadelphia City Council (not voters) passed a similar measure.

Even if soda consumption declines, it doesn’t mean that overall sugar consumption will decline.

Soda taxes are a dangerous idea that demonstrate the willingness of some people to trample on individual freedom. These taxes, first and foremost, are efforts to limit our ability to make our own personal dietary decisions.

Sugar-sweetened beverages, from sodas to juice drinks, are legal products that aren’t unsafe and, for that matter, aren’t necessarily going to lead to negative health outcomes. Dietary decisions are very complex, and individuals who enjoy sodas can have much healthier diets overall than people who don’t drink sodas.

Ironically, if people are incentivized to drink less soda, they may make up for the sugar intake through other sources, which could be even higher in sugar or calories, or harmful in other ways to their health.

Even if soda consumption does decline, this doesn’t mean that overall sugar consumption will decline or that there will be reductions in obesity. It simply means that soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages won’t be consumed as much as before the tax.

The Sugar Police

To even try to socially engineer diets is chilling due to its intrusion on personal choices. To think that the government (or anyone) has the knowledge or ability to develop the right dietary choices for individuals is arrogant and completely ignorant of the complexity of diets.

Also, quite simply and most importantly, if individuals want to drink sodas and consume a lot of sugar and calories, this is their informed and voluntary choice. It isn’t the government’s business to interfere with such choices.

Some will argue that the government does have an interest in soda consumption because of potential health care costs to taxpayers. However, these costs exist because of government intervention.

If the cost issues are to be addressed, then the government should focus on the government programs themselves, such as Medicare. Otherwise, the government could just create programs and then use any impact on those programs as justification to interfere in almost every aspect of our lives.

Two U.S. Department of Agriculture economists did an excellent job capturing the extreme implications of using increased taxpayer costs for health care as the basis for government intervention:

Tapping the public purse for health care expenses does not by itself demonstrate an efficiency problem [i.e., a market failure]. If it did, there would be no end to the number of risky behaviors that we might want to discourage and no end to the public sector’s control over individual choices. Many activities, including skiing, unprotected sex, and home repairs involving power tools, raise health care expenses. Eating raw oysters is clearly a more risky proposition than eating many other foods.

These taxes are allow governments to bring in more money to offset their financial mismanagement or grow government even more.

If this attack on freedom isn’t bad enough, soda taxes are regressive in nature and hurt the poor more than anyone else. Lower-income individuals and families spend a greater percentage of their income on food compared to those at higher income levels. They may even pay more in real terms as well.

A Fatal Conceit

Frequently, these types of intrusions into personal dietary choices are criticized for being nanny state policies. That’s true, but the reality is even more insidious.

There are some “elitists” who simply think they are smarter than most people and want the masses to comply with what they deem is appropriate behavior. These taxes don’t hurt them because they are less likely to drink the sugar-sweetened beverages. They also have the money to pay the higher prices for these beverages.

As for the cities, these taxes are a great way for them to bring in more money, often helping to secure revenue to offset their financial mismanagement or grow government even more.

Policymakers who even remotely believe in individual freedom need to be more proactive in countering these efforts. There are some lines when it comes to public health that shouldn’t be crossed; soda taxes and other direct governmental measures to control individual dietary behavior are way past those lines.

Republished from The Daily Signal.

  • Daren Bakst studies and writes about agriculture subsidies, property rights, environmental policy, food labeling and related issues as The Heritage Foundation’s research fellow in agricultural policy. Read his research.