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Friday, September 25, 2009

Is the Mayor's Soda Tax a De Facto Cultural Attack?

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 3:40 PM

click to enlarge THARRIN/FLICKR
  • tharrin/Flickr
When brand-new dad Gavin Newsom, finally galvanized into action by a damning UCLA study on obesity and soft drink consumption, proposed his indirect soda tax last week -- not a tax on individual cans of corn syrupy goodness but a fee levied on retailers as varied as Safeway and corner liquor stores -- he likely wasn't counted on being called a communist. That's hyperbolic (sorry), but as reported in the Chronicle on Sunday, Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's CEO, did offer words of warning that very faintly cloaked broader allegations: "I've never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink. . . If it worked, the Soviet Union would still be around." Chronicle writer Andrew S. Ross went on to point out that Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia have what he'd consider similar taxes.

In a situation such as this, when a public official -- a mayor no less -- wants to regulate what people put in their bodies -- directly, with the support of voters, or indirectly, by such a roundabout method only Supervisors must approve -- lawsuits are inevitable. Likewise, naysayers wonder why vendors should be taxed for selling soda, but not ice cream, or, say, sports drinks -- a slovenly vice New York City recently targeted in an ad campaign. The author of one comment on Ross's piece proposed a $25 tax on each bag of dog food sold in San Francisco, with the idea that the revenue could "fund a city-operated dog-shit clean up service" to mitigate the near-ubiquitous presence of canine feces on sidewalks and in parks.

With well-traveled logic, The Ethicurian shot down the currently still far-fetched alternative of going higher up the ladder to get corn subsidies eliminated: Such proposals die swift, unceremonious deaths in Congress. According to the same post, there's not actually solid proof removing subsidies would really even have a significant effect on the cost of corn syrup.

Since 2007, Newsom has been itching to make a splash with this. People who spend a lot of money on cheap soda are probably typically poorer than the people who spend a lot of money on unhealthy, relatively luxurious foods -- like Häagen-Dazs and pancetta. Some -- like Reason readers -- think Newsom is letting his own personal values drive his policies, and in this sense, the proposal can be construed as something of a cultural attack. We'll see how it sells. The War on Sweet Empty Calories sounds even less palatable than the War on Drugs -- not to mention less compelling fodder for rap music and gritty cop-dealer dramas on HBO.

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Andrew Simmons


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