Wednesday's Business Day column by the Times' liberal economic conscience David Leonhardt is another one for the food police files: "The Battle Over Taxing Soda ." Personal responsibility on such personal matters isn't a large concern in Leonhardt's worldview, as he readily compared lobbyists for the soda industry to lobbyists against tobacco companies and pollution laws.
Tobacco lobbyists spent years fighting regulation by claiming to be defending individual freedom, not the profits of tobacco companies. Detroit's lobbyists did much the same to push back against seat belt and pollution laws. Wall Street has spent months opposing the financial regulation bill in the name of families and small businesses.
The latest example comes from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the rest of the soda industry, which is trying to defeat a soda tax now before the District of Columbia Council. The industry has succeeded recently in beating back similar taxes in New York and Philadelphia, and in keeping one out of the federal health overhaul bill. But the Washington Council seems to be seriously considering a penny-per-ounce tax on nondiet sodas, energy drinks and artificial juices. Council members are set to vote on the issue next week.
The argument for a soda tax is the same as the argument for a tax on tobacco, pollution or, for that matter, banks that take big, expensive risks. When an activity imposes costs on society, economists have long said that the activity should be taxed. Doing so accomplishes two goals: it discourages the activity, and it raises money to help pay society's costs.
In the case of soda, those costs come in the form of medical bills for diabetes, heart disease and other side effects of obesity. We're all paying these bills, via Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance premiums. Obesity has become a significant cause of our swelling long-term budget deficit.
And soda is a huge reason the country is so much more obese. The typical American consumes almost three times as many calories from sugary drinks as in the late 1970s. This increase accounts for about half the total per-capita rise in calorie consumption over the same period. Remember, many of these drinks have zero nutritional benefit - unlike meat, cheese or juice.
After briefly raising and dismissing counterarguments about job loss and the increase of the tax burden on the poor, Leonhardt concluded with a bleak and melodramatic prediction of how future generations would see those who looked the other way as their kids...drank soda pop.
Someday, we will probably look back on our gallon-a-week soda habit the way we now look back on allowing children to ride without seat belts or listening to doctors who endorsed Camel cigarettes. We will wonder what we were thinking.
Coke and Pepsi, unfortunately, seem willing to do whatever it takes to delay that day.