FoodPolitik: Your new tax code: Bottles, cans, or from the fountain?

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Debt, debt, debt. We’re up to our necks in it. Right now, we owe over $13.7 trillion. Let’s write that out: $13,700,000,000,000-plus. That’s $44,000 for you and $44,000 for me. And $44,000 for each of our children.

Everybody has a solution for politicians’ spending binges; most of them are worse than the last. And now a bipartisan panel has an idea that just might redefine “idiot tax”: a special federal levy on soft drinks.

Do we really have to go through this again?

In a report released shortly before Thanksgiving, a deficit reduction panel co-chaired by former Republican Senator Pete Domenici and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin called for a national penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugary drinks. (That’s 68 cents on a two-liter bottle.)

And Uncle Sam won’t be the only one with his hand out: State-level activist groups and politicians are already buzzing about new local taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks. Look for these proposals when legislatures go back into session in Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois, Texas, and Vermont.

This “Twinkie tax,” as such measures are dubbed, is nothing new. In May 2009 a group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) — derided by many as run-of-the-mill “food police” — proposed a federal tax on soft drinks to pay for Obamacare. Yale University’s obesity activist wing, the Rudd Center, has been shilling for “fat taxes” for years.

They explain their basic philosophy as a belief that higher taxes on “bad” foods and drinks will drive down your consumption.

But if you peel away the feel-good public health language, it’s really about expanding government to control your diet. The claim that “bad” foods and drinks exist, things that no one should ever consume, was an intellectual wedge that opened up all sorts of policy possibilities. CSPI’s president calls such products “food porn”; he wants to put the IRS in our pantries and fridges to make sure we follow an “appropriate” diet.

The Domenici-Rivlin panel has bought this logic hook, line, and sinker, complete with a health care cost rationale for fighting obesity with tax policy.

You think they’d know better. National, state, and local taxes on what we eat and drink have nothing to do with health.

The scientific reality is that soft drinks don’t contribute to obesity any more than other beverages do. A 2008 review of the evidence in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no association between sugary drink consumption and kids’ weight. A separate study in the same journal last fall found the same thing.

If this result seems illogical, consider this: Everything you consume has calories. Calories are just energy for our bodies. Every day, your body needs a certain number of calories to maintain its weight. And soft drinks are just a small portion of what anyone consumes. How small? The National Cancer Institute says less than six percent of total calories for the average American.

Obesity is just a numbers game. As long as calories “in” from what you consume balance with calories “out” from normal metabolism and added physical activity, you won’t gain an ounce.

That’s why, nutritionally speaking, there really are no “good” or “bad” foods. The American Dietetic Association is on board with this idea, telling Americans that “no single food or type of food ensures good health, just as no single food or type of food is necessarily detrimental to health.”

Tax-happy food cops are still banking on a generation of suckers believing that taxing “bad” foods is good for us. And don’t expect them to stop with fizzy drinks. Does history suggest Members of Congress will successfully avoid the temptation to expand a new drink tax into sweet food territory? Or to hike the rate once they establish a beachhead?

It seems politicians will keep looking for new, more “justifiable” taxes, to support spending more of your money. And taxing newly defined “bad” foods and drinks is one way they’ll try to pay for it (for your own good, of course).

Chips? Cookies? Candy bars? Ice cream? Butter? Cream cheese? Half-and-half for your coffee? Even a tax on avocados isn’t terribly far-fetched. (All that fat…)

Many of us could stand to shed a few pounds, but the government’s bulging budget waistline — or is it wasteline? — gives government nags zero credibility when they offer to “help” us with our diets.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit www.BermanCo.com.