Monday, February 22, 2010

A Tax on Soda?

Is soda the new tobacco?  Last week Mark Bittman wrote about how many are arguing it represents the same public health threat as tobacco, given the undeniable obesity epidemic in this country and elsewhere as other cultures adopt the Western diet. 

I have an uncle who is battling advanced esophageal cancer, and when he went to a clinic in Switzerland this past autumn, he asked his doctors if he could enjoy his drink of choice, Coke, again.  No, his doctors responded, it's poison.  What about diet stuff, then?  Even worse, said they. This has helped me cut back from three or four DCs a week to one at the most.  I don't hold an MD, but the brief rush I get is frequently overwhelmed by an upset stomach that doesn't happen with my morning coffee, so it's rather like the persistent early morning cough my parents said they noticed long before they finally gave up the smokes.

Michael Pollan has written that America's collective weight can be traced back to corn--he estimates that the average American consumes more than 90 percent of his or her calories fromn corn. Our farmers grow tremendous amounts and are subsidized fairly heavily by Farm Bill.  So to find a place to put it, most processed foods no longer contain sugar but high-fructose corn syrup.  It's denser in calories than sugar and part of foods that are marketed aggressively.  As Pollan says, most non-packaged food can't market itself.   An apple doesn't have bright shiny packaging or brilliant copy telling us how good it is for us.

Taxing cigarettes has been successful to a point, but smoking has levelled off since campaigns began more than two decades ago.  At a certain point, higher taxes on commodities people really want are no longer deterrents; at some point past that, they even generate a black market that is counter-productive.  Educating people about the dangers of smoking got large numbers of Americans to quit, except for those who love to smoke.  I have lots of friends who consider soda (and for women, especially Diet Coke, which is thought virtuous by most) their drug of choice, and have no real reason to question it.  As with tobacco, it's going to be difficult to fight a powerful industry, but it's possible if a case can be made.   I hope people do learn to cut back,, for everyone's health. 

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