Soft drink tax won't conquer obesity

  • Article by: ANNETTE MEEKS
  • Updated: December 8, 2011 - 9:15 PM
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As one of the Americans who "love carbonated soft drinks," I must respond to Roger Feldman's argument that government should impose an even higher tax on soft drinks ("The Case for Taxing Soda Pop," Dec. 4).

Make no mistake about it: Obesity is a serious public health problem. I understand the implications of an overweight society for our American health care system as well as for each of us personally.

But while Feldman makes several interesting arguments regarding government's subsidization of agricultural products, he misses the mark when he suggests that a soda tax will curb obesity in Minnesota.

Food critics like Feldman argue that if a product costs more, we won't buy it. Feldman would lead us to believe that a soda tax is the next wonder drug -- that if we tax it more, the 34 percent of Americans who are obese will consume less of it.

Interestingly, researchers at George Mason University found that even a 20 percent tax on soda would reduce an obese person's body mass index only from 40 to 39.98 -- a change not even measurable on a bathroom scale.

Experience teaches that a higher tax on soda would serve only to increase state government's girth, not to reduce our own.

Researchers like Feldman believe that a soda tax would be similar to the cigarette tax as a "model of success." Smoking is likely the most extensively studied form of consumption in America.

It is also a highly regulated and restricted commodity courtesy of hypocritical government officials who preach against its use while conveniently using tobacco as their "go-to tax" when state coffers run dry.

Federal, state, and local governments have imposed punitively high taxes on cigarettes, severely restricted access to many perfectly legal tobacco products and banned certain types of tobacco advertising, among other things.

Yet even in this environment, Minnesotans smoke. And those who do smoke pay a tremendously regressive and unequally imposed tax. And now some want to do the same with carbonated beverages.

The soda tax isn't a new idea. As of two years ago, 33 states had tried to limit soft drink consumption by imposing even higher taxes on soda.

According to Reason Foundation research, "five [of] the most obese states -- Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee and Oklahoma -- all have soda taxes, while three of the least obese, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and Colorado, have no soda taxes."

Researchers have concluded that "it's not clear whether there is a [similar] linear relationship between soda and obesity, or that one can be established without first taxing sugared soda out of existence and then assessing the impact on the nation's waistline."

Indeed, while Feldman argues that a soda tax could cause a "five percent" reduction in consumption, he offers no evidence that those who bypass the soda aisle would be his target -- the obese.

But my ultimate objection to a soda tax is simple: We don't need government to make our food and beverage decisions for us.

Anyone who has ever tried to shed excess pounds can tell you one hard and fast rule of weight loss. It's all about how many calories you consume, not where they come from. T

he government's own data show that all sugar-sweetened beverages account for only seven percent of calories in the average American's diet. That means that 93 percent of our calories come from other sources.

A new tax won't teach Minnesotans to live healthy lifestyles or change their behavior. Obesity is a complex and serious problem that requires thoughtful and comprehensive solutions.

Targeting one product in the grocery cart while adding a bigger tax burden to the hard-working people of Minnesota is not the way to do it.

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Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota

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