• We need an Empty Calorie Tax

    by Kelvin Wade

    A new Field Poll shows that four out of five Californians would support a special fee on soft drinks to fight childhood obesity. The “fat tax” is a popular tool in help fighting the epidemic of obesity but for some reason, it never gains traction.

    Last year AdAge said that the average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks per year. Now it’s true we eat a lot of crap as well but by far, the biggest culprit in increased obesity rates is the enormous amount of calories we simply drink. Anecdotally, I know people who drink a six-pack or 2 liter of soda per day. Many people are drinking half of the calories they should have per day.

    Did you know the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than three cans of soda in a week? A week.

    More Californians are worried about bad diets for kids than illegal drugs.

    Let’s face it that we live to consume. Americans consume more than any other country on earth and I’m not talking about just food. The only thing that really works in putting the brakes on our consumption is higher prices.

    Since 1966, we’ve been warning people about the dangers of smoking and tobacco. But what really started cutting smoking rates was taxing the hell out of tobacco. I knew plenty of smokers who knew smoking was bad for them but didn’t quit until it started to really adversely affect their wallet.

    We’ve talked about conservation, car mileage efficiency, carpooling and public transportation for years. The only thing that got Americans to drive less and explore alternative transportation has been high gas prices. Americans’ gas consumption is down.

    You can go to the drive-through at McDonald’s and with the change you find in your pocket, ashtray and seat, you can leave there dang near full. Granted you’ll be full of artificially flavored food-like substances, but you’ll be full nonetheless. The 99-cent McDouble is a staple these days.

    Two liter bottles of soda and 12 packs are frequently on sale. For the price of a gallon of milk you can buy three two-liters of soda.

    I’d go beyond charging fees for soft drinks. I’d extend those taxes (let’s call it what it is) to fast food. All of this cheap processed food we gorge ourselves on should receive the same treatment that tobacco has gotten. All too often healthier foods are more expensive than unhealthy crap.

    I’m not writing this as some wheat germ and tree bark gnawing health nut. I’m the poster child of the crisis. While I don’t consume sugared beverages, cheeseburgers have been my bete noir.

    Those who say it’s their right to buy and eat crap unnecessarily complicate the issue. They say government shouldn’t be in the social engineering businesses. But there’s a public interest in a healthy population. And higher taxes on soft drinks and fast food wouldn’t deny those foods to anyone. People would still be free to buy and consume as much as their wallets will enable them.

    Another problem is that driving down consumption isn’t really what you want to do when coming out of a recession. Recently, the public got up in arms about “pink slime” in ground beef. Stores and restaurants reacted by rejecting “pink slime” in their beef. Score one for the public. But at the same time, the leading producers of pink slime laid off 700 people and filed bankruptcy. Those are the trade-offs.

    Still, what’s in our long-term interest is taxing empty calories. It will raise revenue for health education and maybe even healthcare. And it will also force us to change our eating habits. Win-win.

    • I agree. I believe in taxes if it gets people more healthy, off their butts and walking. Well said Kelvin.

    • And a “not exercising enough” tax too!

      • Matt

      • April 13, 2012 at 8:30 am
      • Reply

      I think where this issue becomes complicated is in lower-income communities where fast food may be the only inexpensive food available. You can incentivize people with options to choose healthier fresh foods over highly taxed fast food, but in some communities there simply aren’t stores that sell fresh fruits/vegetable or those products are cost prohibitive. It seems to me that this sort of tax would have a disproportionate impact on poor families, and would need to be coupled with programs to bring cheaper healthy alternatives to people who don’t currently have those options.

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