In April I noted that a 2¢/ounce soda tax failed to come to a vote in the California state legislature. That’s an exorbitant tax, nearly doubling the price of a twelve-ounce can of soda. Other states are trying to pass such a tax, while Mexico and a few European countries have one already. In the meantime, only the People’s Republic of Berkeley, California, has such a tax in place: 1 cent per ounce. The San Jose Mercury-News reports that the Berkeley tax is showing “results,” but those results are simply a small rise in the retail price of soft drinks. There are no data on whether consumption has decreased (the goal of the initiative), or whether health has improved (for that it’s too early to tell). In Mexico, the one-peso-per-liter tax on sugared soft drinks has reduced consumption by about 12%.
I regard these taxes as unconscionable, as they’re simply ways for the government to regulate people’s diets, and get some money as well. I can barely countenance such taxes on cigarettes, but sodas aren’t that dangerous when drunk in moderation. Almost nobody smokes in moderation. More important, if we’re doing this to fight obesity, why not tax anything with added sugar, like cakes, cookies, or ice cream? Or why not red meat? Or, if you really want to get serious, why not levy an income tax on people by their weight: charging them $X yearly per pound over their ideal weight? That, of course, would be politically insupportable—a sort of fat-shaming—although it might do more for public health than a soda tax. What better incentive to lose weight than if you get taxed for being heavy? The obese may argue (incorrectly) that being overweight isn’t unhealthy, or that they are simply unable to lose weight, but one could also argue that not all people who drink Coke are endangering their health.
These “nanny taxes” are a slippery slope toward government standardization of diets, and they’re popular because they sound good. But wait until they come for your hamburger!
Now Philadelphia is on the verge of voting in a soda tax, which was sold not as a health measure, but a revenue measure—to fund kindergartens and other useful initiatives like libraries and parks. While the tax was originally 3¢ per ounce, the measure that passed the city council by voice vote this week halved that, to 1.5¢ per ounce. What makes this truly ridiculous, though, is that it includes diet sodas, which aren’t a health risk (well, there are some reports that enormous consumption may increase the risk of cancer):
The measure that passed Wednesday taxes not just sugary drinks but also diet drinks. It exempts juice drinks from the tax as long as they have 50 percent juice, even if they also have added sugar.
The city finance director also admitted during the hearing that the soda-tax revenue wouldn’t be used just to fund kindergartens parks, and the like, but would be used to fill in general lacunae in the city budget. In other words, the city lied when proposing it.
There can be no health justification for a tax on both sugared and diet sodas. It is either just a way to grab more taxes by piggybacking on a sugared-soda tax, or reflects people simply not liking others who drink diet sodas, just as some don’t like people “vaping” as a way to reduce the health effects of cigarettes. And if they’re going to tax diet soda, why not bottled water? Such a tax would have salutary ecological effects.
If Philadelphia is doing this just to raise revenue, and not for the health benefits, it would be more useful to raise (or institute) local income or sales taxes. The former could be progressive rather than regressive, for soda taxes put most of the burden on the poor. If it’s for the health benefits, why tax diet sodas instead of butter or red meat?