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Weighing a soda tax

There are complicated questions concerning health and government to consider before deciding whether such a levy is a sweet idea.

September 26, 2009

Pop quiz: Which is more fattening, apple juice or sugar-laden soda? Judging from the calories, the answer would be apple juice, which doesn't contain much more nutrition either.

Not to bash apple juice, that basic beverage of preschool, but the example shows that when it comes to taxing junk food, or even defining it, a hundred inconsistencies crop up to test our inner certitude. Would artificially enriched potato chips count as junk or health food? President Obama is wading into a complicated debate if he takes action on his www.menshealth.com%2Fcda%2Farticle.do%3Fsite%3DMensHealth%26channel%3 Dhealth%26category%3Ddoctors.hospitals%26conitem%3D72387ea369683210Vg nVCM10000030281eac____%26page%3D0 ">recent statement that a tax on soft drinks is worth considering. That followed an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that suggested a tax of a penny an ounce on drinks with sugar added as a way to fund healthcare initiatives and whittle waistlines at the same time. As such proposals find support at the federal and state levels, it's important to clarify exactly what lawmakers hope to accomplish, and to create coherent policies rather than to simply tax one snack or another.

True, there is no known health advantage to soda; people would be better off consuming it as a treat rather than as a basic food group, gulped by the quart cups popular at convenience stores. But the widening of the American silhouette is more complicated than the tax proposals imply, and is not yet fully understood. Remember the low-fat craze of the 1990s? The food was lower in fat, but not the consumers, who swallowed enough bagels and nonfat cookies to keep obesity rates climbing. Nor did fingering carbs as the next culprit slow the fattening of the country; consumers turned to giant helpings of bacon and prime rib.

Numerous worthwhile studies connect high intake of soft drinks, with their heavy doses of cheap high-fructose corn syrup, to weight problems -- which is not the same as saying the situation would reverse with reduced consumption. High tobacco taxes appear to have successfully lowered smoking rates because smokers have no real choices when cigarettes grow too expensive for a daily habit. Calories, on the other hand, come in many forms. Many dietitians now suspect that heaping portions, along with lack of exercise, are the main contributors to obesity; a more effective tactic, though not a fairer one, might tax restaurants that pile food on the plate.

A surcharge on sodas would put the taxpayer in the position of picking up a double tab: once for the extra tax and once for the federal corn subsidies that made the stuff so cheap in the first place. If Congress eliminated those giant servings of taxpayer money, soda would have to pull its own weight, price-wise, on the market shelf.

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