FoodPolitik: Are soft drinks racist?

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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“Spread of soda tax fizzles,” read a headline last week on authoritative state politics website Stateline. We shouldn’t pop the champagne cork just yet, though. Anti-sugar activists are still gunning for soft drinks.

Apparently, sugary beverages like soda, juice, and sports drinks are so nefarious that they warrant a two-day conference this summer. In June, the food-police Center for Science in the Public (or, really, their own fringe) Interest is rallying the troops in Washington, D.C. for another push to put the government in a wide swath of beverages.  This follows on CSPI’s recent lead balloon of last fall’s “Food Day,” which generated noise but little else — similar to the prospects of this conference.

But in case you’re curious about what you’re (not) missing, here’s who’s headlining this little gathering:

  • Michael Jacobson, head of CSPI. Jacobson believes that a 16th century peasant diet of a “pound of bread, a spud, and a couple of carrots” is “basically a wonderfully healthy diet.” CSPI also has compared salt to cocaine and, as a general rule, hates anything that tastes good. Jacobson is the kind of guy who worries that someone, somewhere, is enjoying a snack.
  • Kelly Brownell, a Yale professor and inventor of the “Twinkie Tax.” Brownell calls the idea of personal responsibility an “experiment” that’s “failing miserably.” His solution is to use the tax code to “nudge” people away from making choices he disagrees with.
  • Barry Popkin, a UNC professor who takes a rather fascistic view of consumer choice. “Providing ‘freedom’ to choose unhealthy lifestyles that will lead to obesity and related health problems is not what a healthy society should do,” he says.
  • Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who has unsuccessfully pushed for a citywide tax on soda the past couple of years.

But perhaps the most nauseating session will examine the “impact of sugary drinks in communities of color.” We can already guess what the conclusion will be: Soft drinks disproportionately “harm” urban minorities.

There are two troubling ideas here.

First, it’s the bogus theory that the government can make us healthier. Research repeatedly finds that soft drink taxes are not an effective tool. A newly released study from University of California researchers found that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages (touted by folks like Brownell) would only reduce the number of calories consumed per person by 9 per day. That’s less than one-half of one percent of a 2,000 calorie diet.

Similarly, an economist with Duke-National University of Singapore discovered that a 40 percent tax on soda would only reduce caloric intake by 12 calories. Many people would simply switch from taxed beverages to untaxed beverages with the same amount of calories. (Orange juice and 2% milk are just as fattening as soda.)

The research also proved that lower-income families would be least affected by a tax, which brings us to the second bad premise of the anti-soda activists: the paternalistic idea that the poor aren’t capable of making the right choices. This notion has been used to justify all kinds of heavy-handed government policies to influence consumer decision-making, including zoning restrictions in South Los Angeles to ban new fast-food restaurants from opening. Didn’t we dismiss these ideas of people not being able to make good decisions with the repeal of poll taxes and literacy tests for voting? Do we now feel that these “at-risk people” aren’t smart enough to pull the right can off the shelf but can pull the lever for the right member of Congress and other officials?

Regardless, the idea was that this poorer section of the city was flooded with cheap and easy restaurant options — a premise that was later found to be incorrect. In fact, wealthier areas of town had higher concentrations of fast-food establishments.

For all of the focus on the so-called “toxic food environment” in urban areas, legislators should look at the overall living environment.

And a recent study determined that neighborhood safety is a key factor in promoting physical activity and healthy weight. Researchers from the University of Illinois tracked over 12,000 kids and determined that those who can safely move around are much more likely to be active. Makes sense, right?

This follows a study from the Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis that determined living near parks and recreational facilities is associated with a lower body mass index in children.

There are some things the government can do to improve the environment its citizens live in, such as building parks and bike paths and getting tough on crime. Passing regressive taxes isn’t one of them, and such taxes certainly don’t make anyone healthier.

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.