The Empire State strikes snack

J. Justin Wilson Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom
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In an attempt to shore up New York’s $7.4 billion deficit, Gov. David Paterson is pitching a sour proposal: a “sin tax” on soft drinks that he believes could help reduce waistlines while filling politicians’ pockets.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because Paterson called for an 18 percent tax on soft drinks two Decembers ago-and got a frosty reception. This year’s proposal is just as flat as the last one.

This penny-per-ounce soda tax stands out as a blatant and deliberate attempt to engineer our behavior to a politically correct end. One vocal health gadfly and “food police” activist, New York University’s Marion Nestle, called Paterson’s earlier proposal “an interesting experiment and one that’s worth trying.” In September, President Obama chimed in by calling a soda tax “an idea that we should be exploring.”

Since when is our government in the business of conducting tax experiments, especially when the experiment has been tried before and failed to produce anything more noteworthy than emptier pockets?

The precedents for taxing what we drink as part of a government-induced weight-loss program aren’t encouraging. In 2008, Maine slapped new taxes on soda, beer and wine. Mainers hated the new law so much that they overwhelmingly repealed it less than a year later.

West Virginia has had a tax on “all bottled soft drinks and all soft drink syrups” for more than five decades. And according to at least two published sets of statistics, West Virginians are the second most obese groups of Americans on average.

Blaming a narrow subset of the grocery store for weight gain is as silly as blaming just one credit card in your wallet for putting you in debt. Everything in your refrigerator contains calories. And no one forces you to load it up with anything in particular.

There’s not a single compelling study that suggests taxing soft drinks is an effective way to slim waistlines. Quite the opposite is true: The CDC has written that “evidence for the association between sugar-sweetened drink consumption and obesity is inconclusive.” And a large 2008 review of data published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found “virtually no association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain in children and teens.”

For politicians, arbitrarily taxing this food or that is convenient and effortless. The Nanny State can certainly live with itself if you’re nudged away from one grocery shelf or menu item and toward another. But for those who cherish common sense, Paterson’s recklessness is a great reminder of how far some in government will stretch reality to justify their money-grabs in order to satisfy their bloated budgets.

Taxing soda clearly won’t make anyone healthier. So we’re left with the understanding that Paterson chose to tax carbonated beverages (instead of, say, orange juice, which contains even more calories per ounce) because of a calculation that no one will dare oppose him.

He’s only correct if soft drinks have become the new tobacco. Have they? Or will New Yorkers draw a line in front of the vending machine and say “Enough. No further.”

J. Justin Wilson is a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, where he focuses on food and consumer issues. Wilson is a frequent critic of government paternalism and the “nanny state.” He is the author of “An Epidemics of Obesity Myths” and a frequent contributor to numerous print and broadcast media outlets.