Bloomberg News reported some rather startling news on Tuesday: According to Duke-National University of Singapore researchers writing in the Archives of Internal Medicine, “A tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in the U.S. would generate billions of dollars in federal revenue and have little impact on weight loss.” The researchers concluded that the best plan for reducing consumption of sugary drinks is to end sugar subsidies, not increase taxes.
The story was startling not simply because it refutes public health initiatives across the country, but because of how Bloomberg’s Simeon Bennett reported it: Without a single mention of her boss, the soda-hating mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.
In fact Bennett, a health and science reporter at Bloomberg News, almost completely glosses over New York’s strange history with soda taxes while simultaneously allowing the Duke research team to move the goalposts:
Politicians including New York Governor David Paterson have proposed cutting food aid or taxing sugared beverages to fight obesity and reduce U.S. budget deficits. While the study showed the effect of a so-called soda tax on weight loss is small, it should still be considered because the money raised could also be used for anti-obesity measures, said Eric Finkelstein, an associate professor of health services who led the study at the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School.
What does Bennett fail to mention?
- In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg gave Snapple Drinks the contract to stock vending machines in New York City public schools, despite the protestations of Thomas Frieden, then the director of the city’s health department. Frieden argued that water would have been better than soda and juice. The study which Bennett cited in her report raises a similar point. Namely, that “taxing all sugar-sweetened beverages would be more effective than only taxing soda drinks because it makes it more difficult for consumers to substitute similar products to avoid the price increase.”
- In 2009, Frieden took to the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine to sell the need for a soda tax. “It is difficult to imagine producing behavior change of this magnitude through education alone, even if government devoted massive resources to the task,” Frieden wrote. ”Only heftier taxes will significantly reduce consumption.”
- In 2010, after Obama tapped Frieden to head up the Centers for Disease Control, Bloomberg announced his support for a soda tax. “The soda tax is a fix that just makes sense,” he said in a March 2010 radio address. “It would save lives. It would cut rising health care costs. And it would keep thousands of teachers and nurses where they belong: in the classrooms and clinics.” Three years earlier, Bloomberg said he was opposed to a soda tax. In neither case did the mayor cite specific studies to shore up his positions.
- In October of this year, The New York Times reported on internal dispute in the city health department revolving around the principle claim made by a widely watched PSA: That drinking a soda a day could make a person 10 pounds fatter over the course of a year. According to an email exchange between researchers working under Frieden successor Thomas Farley, “the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd.” It was also the city’s only justification for signing on to the soda tax proposed by NY Gov. David Paterson.
Bennett conludes her piece this way:
Taxing soda drinks was suggested last month by the Debt Reduction Task Force of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non- profit organization established in 2007 by a group of former Senate Majority leaders. The task force recommends the tax on all non-alcoholic beverages with added calorie-dense sweeteners. The tax would apply to sports drinks such as Gatorade, a PepsiCo Inc. product, as well as energy drinks and fruit-flavored beverages if they included added sugars or corn syrup.
The excise tax would take effect in 2012 and raise $156 billion through 2020, according to the task force. That equates to 21 percent of the $756 billion in savings for federal health- care spending under the task force’s proposal.
Get all that? We have the New York City Health Department saying soda doesn’t actually make you fat, and Duke researchers saying soda taxes don’t actually discourage people from drinking soda, and Bennett pushing the idea that we need soda taxes anyway in order to subsidize medical treatment for all the people who are getting fat from stuff besides soda.
And perhaps most significant: Not a word about public health pioneer Mayor Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg news.