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We should raise a glass to soda taxes and size limits

Post Time:Nov 11,2013Classify:Industry NewsView:357

Soda taxes are back, and thank goodness. The sugary beverage industry has spent billions of dollars across the United States trying to defeat any proposal that addresses the serious health costs of the soda and energy drinks we consume, and so far they've been successful. But health advocates aren't backing down. The latest proposal is in San Francisco, California, where a 2-cent-per-ounce tax would be levied on all sugar-sweetened beverages – any drink that is less than 50% fruit or vegetable juice, sweetened with sugar and more than 25 calories. Mexico, too, is getting on the soda tax bandwagon, passing a soft drink tax of one peso, or about eight cents, per liter.


In response, the beverage industry is going bananas, and continuing their campaign of convincing consumers that a two-cent tax on soda is an infringement on their most basic rights and liberties. They had a major victory in New York a few months back, when they defeated a law that would limit the cup size of sugary beverages in venues like sporting arenas and movie theaters to a still-substantial 16 ounces. They've shut down taxes on soda, too, claiming that what amounts to less than a 25 cent increase for a can of Coke is unprecedented Nanny Statism. In fact, many states tax things like liquor, wine, beer, cigarettes and other products that, while sometimes tasty and indulgent, serve little nutritional purpose and, when consumed heavily, can cause major health problems.


Soda, like alcoholic beverages, certainly tastes good, but heavy use leads to a series of ills. No one is trying to take away your soda or outlaw energy drinks; the state is simply trying to discourage heavy use, and make up some of the revenue lost from healthcare costs incurred by heavy soda drinking. The San Francisco proposal, for example, would use the estimated $31m in soda tax revenue to sponsor health and exercise programs. It's a win-win health-wise.


Soda companies, though, stand to lose – not from these taxes themselves, but from what comes next. That's why they're pouring so much money into these proposals on the front end. They're terrified that soda will become the new tobacco: socially shunned, legally regulated, and heavily litigated once it was discovered that producers knew far more than they let on about the health risks of their product.


And they're terrified that wider consciousness about the health problems caused by soda will impact their base of "heavy users". That's what Coke actually calls their most loyal customers, according to journalist Michael Moss. Americans drink an obscene amount of soda, but the heavy users account for much of that consumption – somewhere around 20% of soda drinkers consume 80% of the product, some drinking more than 1,000 cans of soda per year. Get the folks who are drinking three sodas a day to cut back to one and they'll be healthier, but that will be a problem for the soda industry.


The industry pushes back with its pseudo-libertarian claim of "the right to drink as much soda as you please", saying it's an issue of self-control and personal liberty, and that they only meet consumer demand. If consumers are drinking too much of the stuff, it's their fault.


That's a bizarre position to take for an industry that spends billions upon billions in advertising, ostensibly to encourage people to drink more soda. Demand doesn't simply exist in the ether; large corporations are sophisticated machines that create demand. Soda companies don't want you to drink a reasonable amount of soda as a treat; they want you to drink enormous volumes of the stuff even if you wind up with diabetes, tooth decay or heart disease, because heavy soda consumption is good for their profits. They don't care about your rights; they care about your money.


One of the easiest ways for them to make money is super-sizing. Soda comes cheap, so getting people used to drinking enormous volumes means bigger profits. Coke originally came in a six ounce can, and in the 1950s a "family size" bottle was 26 ounces. Today, McDonald's medium-size soda is 21 ounces, and it's not usually feeding an entire family. Extra-large sizing is the new normal, to the point where finding a reasonably-sized beverage is difficult in some locales.


I recently spent a weekend in Georgia, where nearly one in 10 residents has diabetes. In an effort to be somewhat healthy while traveling, I ordered a medium smoothie at a chain establishment. Out came an enormous 32 ounce cup, which a friend and I shared for breakfast over two days – it contained close to 500 calories and nearly 100 grams of sugar. And it could have been worse: there's a smoothie on the menu that at the medium size clocks in at more than 1,400 calories and 187 grams of sugar.


At the airport on my way home, I tried to order a 12 ounce coffee at a chain coffee shop and was informed the establishment didn't even carry small sizes; it was only 16 ounce mediums or 24 ounce larges. When you're busy and on a budget, whether you're a frequent traveler like me or – much more commonly – a parent trying to feed a family, it's disturbingly difficult to find affordable, easy and healthy options. The right to a 40 ounce soda without an extra 80 cent tax should really be the least of our food-related concerns.


Companies know that once they put a drink or food product in front of a consumer, we'll eat it. People are notoriously bad at judging how much they've consumed, and the human body doesn't register being full until long after we've actually eaten our fill. Soda drinking actually makes you hungrier, a winning situation for fast food restaurants who want consumers to buy the big drink and the super-sized meal. And pricing structures make the extra-large sodas seem like a better deal, appealing to consumers' desire to get the most bang for their buck. As a result, Americans are drinking enormous amounts of a product that not only has no nutritional value, but does actual damage to the human body. And we're chafing at any attempt to put a tiny tax on that.


So why are even some of the liberal-minded under the impression that Big Soda has their best interests at heart, and that a 32 ounce medium is acceptable as a new normal?


Most of it is simply the "freedom" messaging that beverage companies have so successfully pushed. But then there's the messaging from the health advocates' side, which seems more concerned about body size than actual health.


Scroll up and you'll notice that the term "obesity" is noticeably absent from this piece. That's because I don't really care if you're fat or not, and I don't think the government should, either. But the government should care about the broader public health, including things like heart disease, hypertension, liver conditions, tooth decay and diabetes, all of which are tied to heavy soda drinking. There is a correlation between obesity and some of those conditions, but it's significantly less clear that obesity actually causes any of them. So instead of worrying about the "obesity epidemic", which inevitably devolves into lecturing people about their size, let's focus on actual health, which heavy soda drinking significantly impairs – whether you're a size 2 or a size 32.


I wish San Francisco all the luck in implementing a minor tax on soda that will allow them to more generously fund exercise and health programs. I'm not much of a soda drinker myself, but I will gladly raise my (heavily taxed) glass of wine to better health in the Bay.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/Author: shangyi

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