The negative political reaction of the American Beverage Association to the possibility of a federal tax on soft drinks is disingenuous and motivated by greed masquerading as political principle. The association, whose members include PepsiCo and Coca-cola, ran an anti-soda tax advertisement entitled “Give Me a Break” during the Super Bowl, attempting to send a clear message to consumers: the government wants to control what you drink, don’t let it! In the commercial, a woman walks around a grocery store filling her cart with products. She complains that “feeding a family is difficult enough in today’s economy” and that “some politicians want the government telling me how I should do it” by “[putting] taxes on a lot of groceries I buy, like soft drinks, juice drinks, sports drinks”. A red flag should go up right here, as it does in this anti-soda tax commercial as well. Why would someone who is struggling to feed a family waste her money on something as unhealthy and nutrient-free as soda?
In the Super Bowl commercial, the actress glosses over this element of personal choice with the phrase “groceries I buy”, implying that her purchasing of the would-be taxed products is necessary and non-negotiable. Note also the term “juice drink” rather than “juice”. As it stands, the government is considering taxing beverages that contain less than 70% fruit juice, such as Kool-Aid (though not in powder form), which, like soda, is loaded with sugar and free of nutritional value.
An interesting way to view this commercial is to imagine that instead of soda, “juice drinks” and sports drinks, the actress is complaining about taxes on a different product of similar nutritional value. Take Skittles, for example. A medium (not “fun size” or jumbo, but the size you’d see in a vending machine) bag of Skittles contains 47 grams of sugar, while a 12 oz can and a 20 oz bottle of Coke contain 39 and 65 grams of sugar respectively. The main ingredient in both Skittles and Coke is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which contains none of the nutritional value of corn. Indeed, neither product has any significant amount of vitamins, protein or fiber. Replace “soda” with “Skittles” in the anti-tax commercial, and the ad becomes completely ridiculous. The woman just appears to be saying “I just want my damn Skittles! I don’t have much disposable income, but I really need Skittles to feed my family and the government wants to make it harder for me to buy them!” Give me a break and please, spare me the argument that soda “hydrates” and therefore should not be taxed. While it is true that the notion that caffeine dehydrates has indeed been refuted by recent research (a finding Coca-Cola proudly states and restates on its website), surely the worst possible way in which to consume H2O is using it to wash down 16.5 sugar cubes. Congratulations, you had a glass of water with your Skittles.
To move on from these humorously indignant commercials, consider the implications of a soda tax. Proponents of the tax argue that sugary, nutrient-free beverages significantly contribute to obesity, increasing medical costs for both the population and the government. The tax is meant to help offset this externality by not only discouraging the consumption of soda, but also by giving the government more revenue that would ideally be put toward health care and health-related costs. Opponents of the tax argue that the tax is regressive, hitting low-income consumers hardest.
We live in a time and culture where obesity and poverty are heavily linked. Unfortunately, the unhealthiest, most artificial foods are the cheapest in the market, so often the poor are heavy consumers of soda. Of course, the soda companies (and other manufacturers/distributors of calories in synthetic form) do not acknowledge their contribution to the poor’s obesity and its related ailments. They do not address the detrimental effects their products have on low-income consumers, yet they claim to stand up for these consumers by fighting a potential tax on their own harmful products. It’s as if the current, artificial cheapness of soda is in itself regressive, doling out a larger cost to the poor in the form of sickness and obesity and all the related costs.
So what to do? It is true that low-income consumers would get hit harder by the soda tax, doubly so since those drinks are cheaper in the first place, and would likely remain cheaper than other beverages even if the tax were implemented. This is where the role of the government has to come in and use the revenue for the tax to make healthier food and drink alternatives appealing, affordable and available.
A direct relationship between the tax and the goal of improving health and health care at the federal level has the potential to be effective politically and economically. The government should be absolutely clear on what it does with the revenue generated by the soda tax. For instance, the money could be put toward getting healthier food to public schools, or perhaps it could be used for subsidizing produce. The current, decades-old subsidy on corn has led to the overproduction of HFCS, the main ingredient in soda and other nutrient-free beverages.
Few if any people ultimately benefit from artificially cheap corn other than the sugary beverage companies, the makers and sellers of fast and processed foods, and their stockholders. Currently the subsidy on corn ranges from $5.5 billion to $7.3 billion per year, an enormous break for the largest producers and users of HFCS. (Indeed the United States is the world’s leading producer of corn syrup – what a terrific contribution we’re making.) A reversal of this subsidy is long overdue. Consumers deserve to save on and benefit from fruits and vegetables that are sold in their pure forms, not the essentially synthetic products that result from combining them with countless preservatives and refined sugar (and this is to say nothing of the masses and masses of corn that are used only as animal feed in the infamous Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The government should help citizens heed the message sent by the United States Department of Agriculture in the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010” and make higher quality fruits and vegetables more affordable and accessible.
Though it is trickier, another realm in which “real food” ought to be promoted is advertising, specifically ads meant to make the public’s image of processed food and nutrient-free beverages more negative. Or perhaps it is the HFCS beverage and fast, big food companies who need to be confronted on the issue of their invasive omnipresence in stores and media. The government cannot simply provide consumers with monetary incentives and freebies, and they would do well to collaborate with willing, private companies to send a new message to the public. Non-diet soda is essentially liquid candy, but our culture as a whole does not seem to view it that way. Perhaps we would be better off if soda were placed in the candy aisle in grocery stores.
From a broader perspective, much of the population does not choose to use real food as preventative medicine even when they can afford to do so. We are solicited by food and beverage companies much differently from how we are solicited by pharmaceutical companies, yet much of what “Big Pharma” aims and claims to cure can be prevented with diet. If more decisions were made in favor of plants instead of junk, both nourishment and health care would be cheaper for everyone.
Jackie Colvin is a freelance writer living in Chicago.