Of Course Sugar Should Be Taxed



Rethink your drink, say the proponents of Richmond's soda tax measure.

by Jill Escher

Election time is around the corner and nowhere are the Sugar Wars being waged as fiercely as in Richmond, California, where the voters are considering a measure that would impose a one-cent-per-ounce sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.  Fearing a domino effect should the measure pass, the soda industry has poured millions into fighting it, arguing that beverages are unfairly being singled out and that there’s no assurance the tax proceeds will be spent on meaningful anti-obesity programs.

The premise behind the ballot measure is simple: soda and similar sugary drinks are a leading cause of obesity and preventable disease like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and the government ends up footing the bill for a whole lot of this disability, so let’s tax the junk to discourage consumption while also helping pay for anti-obesity programs.

I’m not a big fan of taxation generally, since I distrust most governments to spend our money wisely, but when it comes to sugar and junk food and drink generally, I see a role for taxation to account for the “externalities” caused by individual behavior.  In other words, if the taxpayers are going to be on the hook for much of the disability and medical costs caused by chronic sugar consumption, it makes sense to impose most of those costs on those causing the problems, that is, those people chowing down the white stuff. And taxation is a reasonable way to internalize those costs.

But it begs the question, why soda? Why not tax all sugar?  After all, as Dr. Lustig wisely points out, refined sugar is poison and its overconsumption is a major trigger for today’s horrific but perfectly preventable epidemics (yes, there are other causes, sugar/HFCS is but one).  I say Richmond’s measure does not go far enough. Let’s fundamentally change our culture’s relationship with sugar by placing it in the category it deserves: a toxic and addictive substance like tobacco and alcohol, which per prudence and public health necessitates a measure of control.

 

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