Opinion

FoodPolitik: Want to live forever? Tax everything

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company

According to researchers at Columbia University and the University of California-San Francisco, a penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks (that’s 12 cents a can) would save 26,000 lives over ten years. That’s just the ammo that the nation’s self-anointed food police are looking for as they push for soda taxes in recently reconvened state legislatures.

Twenty-six thousand is a considerable figure. My question is, why stop there? If taxes prevent death, let’s tax everything. Don’t we owe it to the millions whose lives we’d save by protecting them from themselves?

If a 12-cent-per-can tax on sugary drinks saves 26,000 lives, let’s jack it up to 50 cents and save 100,000 lives. Then let’s expand it to other foods. Let’s enforce a dollar-per-donut tax and put a quarter-per-quart levy on ice cream. Cookies, apple pie, milkshakes — it’s all fair game.

What will we do with all this money we’re raising? The researchers promise that the penny-per-ounce (by the way, there’s no scientific basis for a penny beyond the need for a round number) soda tax would raise $13 billion, plus an additional $17 billion saved in government costs. My taxes on everything from donut holes to banana splits will raise many times more.

We’ll pay down the national debt on brownies alone.

There’s only one small problem: Reality.

The basic idea behind the “fat tax” theory is this: Use food taxes to discourage consumption of “bad” foods. That’ll cause people to lose weight and become healthier, thereby saving the government money on health care costs and lengthening lives.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. The only things getting thinner with food taxes are our wallets.

The new study urging a penny-per-ounce soda tax, for instance, finds that such a tax would only reduce the energy intake of an average person by 9 calories per day. That’s a fraction of 1 percent of the number of calories we eat every day. Similarly, research from Duke-National University of Singapore discovered that a hefty 40 percent tax would only reduce energy intake by 12 calories a day.

Hard to see how something so far on the margin is going to “save” 26,000 lives, isn’t it?

One fatal flaw is that taxes on soft drinks simply lead people to replace soda with another flavored beverage that has just as many calories, such as milk or orange juice. Similarly, a tax on potato chips could increase cracker consumption. Put a tax on candy and we’ll be eating more cookies. And so on.

The only solution, then, is to tax everything so that nobody can afford to eat the targeted “bad” foods.

If our public health gurus were really concerned about people’s weight, they’d tax the total number of calories we eat. If we ate more than the amount we were allotted by a government dietitian, we would be taxed, i.e., fined. Then, we could pivot to a tax on anything that might make us couch potatoes: TVs, World of Warcraft — and of course, lounge chairs.

Besides all of that, a soda tax is simply a backdoor money grab. It’s not about health. It just creates a convenient ruse to justify the government raising taxes even higher. The fact that a soda tax won’t make anybody thinner is actually helpful for the politicians — it won’t be declared a failure conceptually. The next line will be we didn’t put the tax high enough to matter. Failure will be used to justify higher and even more taxes on more foods, providing obese bureaucratic budgets with an increasing stream of sustenance.

So here’s a novel idea: Rather than giving profligate politicians more of our tax dollars to gorge on, let’s put Big Government on a diet. By pulling their hands out of the public cookie jar and refusing to indulge the junk science that underlies the demonization and taxation of specific products, we can force legislators to take a hard look in the mirror, tighten their belts and find a way to a more healthy fiscal policy.

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 http://www.BermanCo.com.