As Ronald Reagan used to say of his pointless critics: "Well, there they go again."
Today, there is yet another attack from career activists who once again want to tax soft drinks - thus growing the Nanny State, raising costs for families and threatening good-paying jobs, all during a time of the worst recession since the Depression. Brilliant people, these folks are. At least this time, they're showing some honor by portraying their attacks for what they really are: personal opinion. Usually they try to shill their ideas as legitimate science.
In a New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece, Thomas Frieden and Kelly Brownell argue that soft drinks should be taxed because they are a unique contributor to the obesity problem. Kelly Brownell, who does not drink regular soda, argues that by taxing these products, Americans will become less obese. Hmmm, interesting notions coming from Kelly of all people.
In this post, we'll address the facts of a soda tax; later today we'll address some facts about Kelly and Tom.
On taxing soda: it's just bad public policy. Period. These taxes don't work and cause far more harm to people than good.
Obesity is indeed a serious and complex problem. So it is irritating that activists who portray themselves as scientists repeatedly revert to simplistic and phony solutions that both science and common sense show won't make a difference. These tactics just distract from the hard work needed to implement meaningful solutions.
For starters, singling out one product for taxation as a unique contributor to obesity won't make a dent in the problem. Even the same New England Journal of Medicine published an NIH-funded, peer-reviewed study in February that showed all calories count, regardless of the food source. In other words, the study reaffirmed the long-standing science that balancing calories consumed from all foods and beverages with calories burned through physical activity are what really matters.
Harvard professor Frank Sacks, the lead author, said his study "really goes against the idea that certain foods are the key to weight loss. This is a pretty positive message." Yes, portion control and moderation for all foods and beverages are positive messages.
Secondly, Kelly feebly argues that soda taxes will lead to a decrease in soda consumption and a correlated decrease in overweight and obesity. Nice try. The facts, however, are that obesity rates in America continue rising while soft drink sales are declining. It stinks when the logic gets in the way of a good fable.
Third, pardon the pun, but soda taxes won't provide an ounce of prevention on obesity, but they will cause a ton of pain to families struggling through a horrible recession. Taxes will raise costs on their groceries. And it will put at risk tens of thousands of jobs in communities large and small. These are good-paying, often union, jobs with health benefits. Ask the 2 million Americans who have lost their jobs this year alone if taxing products at the cost of jobs is good public policy.
Finally, soda taxes simply expand the Nanny State and its food police. This is America, where personal choice and personal responsibility still reign. Americans don't want government - especially when prodded by entrepreneurs like Kelly Brownell whose livelihood literally depends on bashing food - telling them what they should eat or drink.
What people would welcome is some education about the need to balance calories consumed with calories burned, as well as some help on how to go about that for their families.
But it's much harder work for activists and government to give people the lifelong skills to know how to fit all foods and beverages into a balanced diet by helping them understand how to make the principle of calories in and calories out work for them. This approach involves implementing real science. It's not a sound-bite solution, which so many activists prefer because it gets them media attention and sells books.
What Kelly Brownell and Thomas Frieden are doing by pushing a soda tax is just plain lazy. And laziness is a far bigger part of the obesity problem than a soda pop.