Voters to Lawmakers: Don’t touch my junk…or my soda

Patrick Gleason Director of State Affairs, Americans for Tax Reform
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Fed up Americans recently united in telling the government not to touch their collective junk and the message appears to be getting through, at least somewhat, as the Transportation Security Administration is reportedly reevaluating the new enhanced pat-down procedure in response to public outcry. But the TSA’s taxpayer-funded grope-a-thon is not the only unpopular policy that received public rebuke last month.

Just a few weeks ago voters across the country sent a clear message that government is spending too much, taxing too much, and has become too intrusive. One of the most exemplary and least discussed manifestations of this sentiment on election night was voter backlash against soda taxes and the lawmakers who voted for them.

Paternalistic taxes that seek to siphon more money from family budgets while influencing personal dietary decisions, soda taxes have proven to be one of the most tangible symbols of out-of-touch and overreaching government policies.

State legislators in progressive Washington State increased taxes on soda, candy, and even bottled water this year in order to avoid necessary austerity measures. On Election Day, voters in the Evergreen State told lawmakers in Olympia to go back and make the cuts, repealing the soda tax by a more than 20-point margin.

Democrats in charge of the Colorado state legislature also raised taxes on soft drinks earlier this year. Republicans will now control that state house in 2011 and many of the soda tax’s lead supporters will not be returning to the capitol in Denver next year as a result of that unpopular vote.

Soda tax legislation was introduced in over a dozen state capitols in 2010 and also found a receptive audience with politicians at the local level, especially in cities along the Acela corridor where several soda tax bills were introduced.

Following New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s lead, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter made a soda tax his number one 2010 legislative priority. In response to overwhelming opposition from constituents, the city council refused to go along. Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty also jumped on the soda tax bandwagon this year. While D.C. City Council members did not approve a soda excise tax, they did apply the District’s six percent sales tax to soft drinks and sweetened beverages.

The backlash against soda taxes (pop taxes for some above the Mason-Dixon Line) at the voting booth demonstrates the public’s ability to see through the false altruistic auspices under which they are sold. Legislators have clearly underestimated their constituents’ ability to recognize that soda taxes are nothing more than unjustified cash grabs that allow profligacy on the part of lawmakers to continue and, despite proponents’ talking points, have nothing to do with improving health.

The fact remains that there is simply no correlation between higher taxes on soda and obesity mitigation. An obvious example is West Virginia, one of two states with a soda tax. Despite having had a soda tax in place for the last 50 years, West Virginia has the nation’s fourth highest obesity rate. The other state with a soda excise tax, Arkansas, is also among the 10 most obese states in the country. In April the journal Health Affairs published a study showing that soda excise taxes have no noticeable impact on obesity.

Furthermore, Kansas State University Professor Mark Haub recently demonstrated why soda is a dubious scapegoat for America’s obesity problem and why a soda tax would do nothing to rectify the situation. Dr. Haub recently concluded a 10-week “junk food diet” — living off Twinkies, Oreos, chips, and other processed vending machine food for nearly two months. The result was that Dr. Haub lost 27 pounds and reduced his body fat by over 25%, reminding everyone that when it comes to weight loss or gain, it is calories in, calories out, not the nutritional content of food that matters.

The new makeup of state legislatures heading into 2011 does not bode well for soda tax proponents either. In January there will be 13 new and returning governors who have promised to veto any tax hike that comes to their desk — a 44% increase from the current number of governors who have made this commitment. In fact, there are well over 1,200 state legislators across the country going into next year who have ruled out tax increases; of those, 131 are in leadership.

A clear trend has emerged and soda taxes have become a prominent example of the public’s disdain for unnecessary government intrusion in their lives and livelihoods. After last month it should be clear to all incumbent and incoming lawmakers that soda taxes are bad policy, bad politics, and should be quickly dismissed.

Patrick Gleason is Director of State Affairs at Americans for Tax Reform.