Taxation alone won't improve public health

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Texas Senate Bill 1004, which is currently under consideration, would levy a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on all nonalcoholic beverages that contain natural or artificial sweeteners. It excludes beverages that contain milk or milk products, milk substitutes such as soymilk, or at least 50 percent juice, as well as infant formula. It includes soda, diet soda, energy drinks, fruit punch and sports drinks such as Gatorade. Thirty-three states have similar taxes, usually known as “soda taxes.”

Texas needs money. Axing necessary public spending, not to mention funding for our University, can only go so far. Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio, who proposed the bill, claims that it could raise $4 billion every two years. Soda is a luxury good that nobody needs, and taxing soda is a better idea than taxing income or food or restricting our access to financial aid.

But Lucio also claims that his tax is a good way to fight obesity. Little more than high fructose corn syrup and chemical additives dissolved in water, soda is one of the only calorie sources that almost everyone agrees has no health benefits. And although it’s not clear whether a tax as low as a penny per ounce will really decrease soda consumption, if it does, at least some health improvements are sure to follow. But food activists should not fight for taxation as a way to discourage unhealthy food choices. Food industry lobbyists are too powerful and nutrition science is too fallible for me to trust the government to define healthy eating.

And while a soda tax is pretty innocuous, I wouldn’t want legislators to take the idea of taxing ostensibly unhealthy foods any further. What if Texas decided to tax whole milk but not skim? The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends switching from whole milk to reduced-fat or skim. While skim milk may be a better option for many people, some people actually choose whole milk for health reasons. It has more fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A and D, than skim milk. Some people need more fat or more calories in their diets than others. And although the USDA takes the stance that saturated fat causes heart disease, some recent research suggests that the connection isn’t so clear.

The minutiae of nutritional arguments are less important than the fact that these arguments exist. And as long as they do, we have no business using taxes to discourage food purchases that the USDA’s nutritionists, perhaps rightly and perhaps wrongly, have deemed healthier. Besides that, food choices are more than just nutritional choices. Think about the cultural implications of a Texas tax on lard. Lard, or rendered pork fat, has one of the worst reputations among cooking fats, despite the fact that less than half of its fats are saturated. But it’s also a staple in Mexican cooking. A tax on lard would be a tax on traditional Mexican cuisine. It would likely hit Texans of Mexican heritage the hardest and it would also imply a value judgment on long-standing cultural traditions.

Similar arguments have been made against a soda tax: Because soda is more widely consumed by low-income people, a tax on soda would hit low-income populations hardest. This is a valid argument, but it’s not quite the same argument. While lard and whole milk have been used by traditional cultures for many generations, soda as we know it is relatively new. And soda consumption among low-income people is likely so prevalent not because of deeply rooted cultural preferences but because soda, on a per-calorie basis in comparison to other food, is cheap. But, ironically, it is government policy that makes it so cheap. High fructose corn syrup, the main ingredient in soda, is made from corn. And corn is subsidized: Our government pays farmers to grow it in massive quantities so they can sell their crops below the price of production and still stay in business. The most heavily subsidized crops, such as corn and soy, are used primarily as raw ingredients for processed food and as feed for factory-farmed animals.

Artificially lowering the price of unhealthy processed foods, making produce and pasture-raised animal products expensive by comparison, victimizes low-income people far more than a soda tax. The real solution is to eliminate these subsidies. But change at the federal level will be slow-going. So it is reasonable (if somewhat ironic) to suggest that at the state level, we could partially and imperfectly correct the artificially low prices of unhealthy, processed foods such as soda through taxation.

But the Texas soda tax has not been billed as a farm bill corrective. It’s billed as a public health measure. We’re going to have to make compromises this legislative session, and taxing a luxury good like soda is a compromise I’m willing to make. But let’s not claim that taxation is the key to reducing obesity and improving public health.