Taxing soda could help reduce consumption of unhealthy drink

U-Wire and U-Wire

I remember going into the Laughing Planet some time last year for a burrito and seeing the sign. The restaurant was phasing out fountain drinks from the menu, and the sign said, and I paraphrase, ‘stop the sugar pushers,’ referring, of course, to soft drink manufacturers famous for packing cans and bottles full of high-fructose corn syrup with a bit of color and artificial flavor for flair ‘- tasty, sure, but almost without any nutritional value whatsoever. Really, if you think about it, it’s a pretty big statement. It’s a product sold in boxes of syrup to restaurants, where it’s combined with carbonated water and marked up to levels that make it a significant revenue stream. So I applaud the restaurants that decide to stop offering stuff like high-fructose corn syrup in favor of tastier, more healthful options like water. I like Dr Pepper as much as anyone else, but there’s something kind of unsettling about the increase in soft drink affordability, especially when it’s examined in parallel with obesity rates. Numerous studies have described the relationship between soft drink intake and obesity and general diet, and they’re all almost uniform in their results: drinking soft drinks makes you fatter and in many cases is a marker for bad food habits. So why not a soda tax? Originally proposed earlier this year by New York Gov. David Paterson, it was deemed political nuclear waste and landed with a thud, after which the governor dropped it. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine, due out at the end of next week and already available online, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden and Yale researcher Kelly Brownell make a case for the tax and quietly rebut much of the criticism thus far leveled at it. But their argument for a tax is not without its problems. A key parallel they make in the piece is between the proposed soda tax and the cigarette tax, which has had impressive effects on tobacco consumption, with one study showing that for every 10 percent increase in price, there was a 7.8 percent decrease in tobacco use. Of course there are plenty of things that make taxing cigarettes and taxing soda different. For one, the tax on soda would have to be as high as the cigarette tax, which can be as high as $2 per pack in some states, for any effect. But here’s a kicker of a similarity, albeit a controversial one. Refined sugar ‘- the kind that makes up many sodas ‘- may be as addictive as things like nicotine in tobacco. There is a body of literature on the topic that is beginning to show similarities ‘- real, physiological similarities ‘- between addiction to drugs and addiction to certain foods, like refined sugars. As surprising as that may be to some, it could be the strongest argument for a soda tax. Taxing a food item is one thing, but taxing an addictive food item that has potential for long-term health effects begins to look like prudent policy.