Fighting for the Right to Drink Soda

NEW YORK — Depending on what subway car you’re riding in New York these days, you might either see an ad warning that soft drinks are dangerous to your health, or a sardonic opposing ad charging that the government’s campaign against soft drinks threatens your basic freedoms.

“Are you pouring on the pounds?” reads the first ad, which is sponsored by the city’s Department of Health and shows a reddish liquid splashing into a glass, where it congeals into an ugly lump of fat. “Cut back on soda and other sugary beverages,” the ad says. “Go with water, seltzer, or low-fat milk instead.”

The worry that sugary drinks are the cause of a major health problem in an ever-more overweight and gastronomically self-indulgent society is a widespread one and has led to increasing calls among government officials and private organizations, like the American Medical Association, for new or higher taxes on soft drinks as a way of getting people to reduce their sugar intake.

“There’s no doubt our kids drink way too much soda,” President Barack Obama declared in a recent speech, and it would seem that truer words were never spoken.

Enter the Center for Consumer Freedom, a lobbying group financed by the food and beverage industry, which is pouring millions into counter-ads that don’t argue, as the tobacco industry used to, that its product isn’t as bad as the government says it is. The argument is an anti-big-government one instead, an effort to exploit fears of creeping nannyism and of an erosion of personal responsibility and freedom.

“Big Apple or Big Brother?” one of the ads asks, suggesting that Orwell’s 1984 is hard upon us. “You’re too stupid to make good personal decisions about foods and beverages,” says another, the words made up partly by pictures of things like donuts and ice cream cones.

“It’s your food,” this second ad concludes in a sort of libertarian peroration. “It’s your drink. It’s your freedom.”

It’s a very American battle, this argument about soft drinks and whether they should be taxed, or even if the government should be spending money urging people to be a bit more sensible. As with the struggle over health care reform, it involves the role of government, with opponents of government action exploiting the ever-present fear of a sort of civil service dictatorship, in which we are protected against ourselves whether we like it or not.

But, first of all, let’s ask the obvious question, given the fact of the obesity epidemic in America, which, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, costs something like $147 billion a year in medical expenses, half of which is picked up by the government-run plans, Medicare and Medicaid. Why object to a program to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks?

“There are so many reasons,” J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, said in a phone interview. “There are ideological reasons, scientific reasons, and policy reasons.

“From the ideological point of view, I just don’t think a tax should be a tool for social engineering, to change people’s behaviors.

“People draw the parallel with tobacco,” he said, “but there’s a huge chasm of a difference between the two. There’s an incontrovertible link between tobacco and serious diseases. Soda is one of a plethora of products that are overused by some people, but there’s nothing wrong with it per se.”

Then, getting to the public policy portion of his case, Mr. Wilson continues that a government campaign against soft drinks, and especially putting a tax on them, won’t help anyway.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that shows that it will work,” he said. “All the studies show that it will have no impact on obesity rates,” he said.

That is perhaps Mr. Wilson’s strongest argument, and he refers to various studies to try, reasonably, to substantiate his claim. Not all of the statements of members of the Center for Consumer Freedom are as reasonable-sounding as his, though. On YouTube I saw the right-wing Fox News commentator Glenn Beck interviewing David Martosko, who is the director of research for the C.C.F., and the two of them took turns bashing Mr. Obama and the rest of the fools in Washington who would trash our freedoms.

“This is a guy who wants to have unprecedented levels of control over what you do, how you eat, what you drive — and I’m talking about the president, who wants to have control over what doctors you see,” Mr. Martosko said.

Mr. Martosko has a particular animus against Cass Sunstein, the Harvard University law professor who has been confirmed as Mr. Obama’s chief of information and regulatory affairs and who, Mr. Martosko contends, harbors a secret agenda to use environmental laws to strangle chicken and pig farmers.

Mr. Sunstein “has already decided that you and I are basically animals, we’re basically pieces of meat, so the government should basically tell you what you can do,” Mr. Martosko told Mr. Beck.

Wow! It seems that, from things like taxes on sugary sodas, it’s just one small step to total control by government of every aspect of life.

Meanwhile, Surgeon General Richard Carmona has called the obesity epidemic “the greatest threat to public health today,” which “kills more Americans than AIDS, cancer and accidents combined.”

According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, per capita intake of caloric beverages doubled in the United States between 1977 and 2002. Moreover, the article said, there was a direct correlation between that and both the obesity epidemic and the increasing rates of diabetes among children.

Will putting a tax on soft drinks be effective? Mr. Wilson may be right that unless the tax is so high that sugar-sweetened drinks are effectively banned, the tax won’t do the job. Moreover, whether effective or not, there is something to the argument that a government-imposed penalty on Coke and Mountain Dew does represent a nanny-like intrusion.

True, it does seem unfair, when sodas are taxed more than other prepared foods, to make responsible, healthy people pay more for their Coca-Cola because other people drink too much of it. But that warning in the subway about not pouring on more pounds isn’t a tax; it’s just good advice.

By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
October 7, 2009

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