Monday, September 21, 2009

Soda Jerks

As most of us are aware, the efforts of Governor Paterson to tax soda as part of his deficit reduction/health initiative, fell flat this past winter; but the groundswell of support for this idea is bubbling to the surface in the most likely of places-San Fransisco. As the SF Chronicle reports: "Calling soda the new tobacco, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will introduce legislation this fall that would charge a fee to retailers that sell sugary beverages. Newsom would need voter approval to tax individual cans of soda and sugary juice, but only needs approval from the Board of Supervisors to levy a fee on retailers. His legislation would charge grocery stores like Safeway and big-box stores, but would not affect restaurants that serve sodas."

So, let's get this straight-just kidding. Mayor Newsome believes that soda is equivalent to a product that directly kills tens of thousands of people every year. Here's why: "Newsom said he was particularly motivated to move forward with the legislation by Thursday's release of a UCLA study showing a link between soda and obesity in California. Researchers found that adults who drink at least one soft drink a day are 27 percent more likely to be obese than those who don't - and that soda consumption is fueling the state's $41 billion annual obesity problem."

Ah, once again, we confront the erroneous conflation of correlation with causation-but did the study inquire whether those same obese folks ate fatty foods, or ice cream, or chocolate pudding, more than skinnier San Franciscans? Let's stipulate that fatter people eat, not only more food than their thinner counterparts, but less healthier eats as well. They are probably exercising less too. They could also be more economically challenged in today's tenuous job market-and therefore prone to seek emotional nurturance in the less healthier foods.

It is, as we can see, a complex concatenation of variables that go into making the obesity problem as severe as it is in America today-but that won't stop the nannies from looking for a scapegoat; and since soda isn't the only one, this is gonna prove to be a classic slippery slope. The nanny appetite is insatiable.

We do believe, since this is San Fransisco, that Twinkies will be next. Which will make that city no longer the home of the, "Twinkie defense," but the Twinkie offense. Reason captures this dangerous and confused thinking: "As with all soda-specific tax proposals, there is a weird underlying confusion between correlation and causation. Fat people drink more soda than skinny people. They also consume more calories overall and exercise less. But policymakers persist in acting as if calories in soda have magical properties that make us obese, unlike the identical calories in all the other food we eat. A food calorie is 4.2 kilojoules of energy, whether it comes from a bottle of orange juice, or an ice cold Coke."

And as far as the slippery slope goes, the SF Chamber of Commerce gets it: " Jim Lazarus, vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said the group opposes the soda tax."Does this mean there's a fee on candy bars, on ice cream, on potato chips?" he asked. "Where do you draw the line?"

The line should be drawn at the intersection between nudge and coercion-a line that is too often crossed, especially when the intersection is found during a budget crisis. But we shouldn't forget that there are a lot of folks who make a living manufacturing sweet soft drinks; and not all of them are Coke and Pepsi. Let's give people the information they need to make good choices-and refrain from force feeding them.