The Soda Tax

The commercial that you see above really irked me the first time that I saw it. In it, a woman grouses about a bill to tax soda in New York State (a similar bill is being proposed in ten other states, including California and Washington), making the point that she can barely make ends meet (though, as my friend Mark Blankenship points out in his post about it, the woman has an “enormous kitchen”) and urging Governor Paterson to focus on “out-of-control spending in Albany” rather than how much it should cost for her kids to drink their beloved soda.

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that there’s an obesity epidemic going on in America. The New York Times Magazine section, this weekend, declared that “a full third of America’s children are overweight and 17% are clinically obese.” According to The Daily News, 60% of New Yorkers are overweight or obese. This soda tax commercial doesn’t address that at all, glossing over the intent of the bill itself and focusing on its practical ramifications. The commercial seems to be saying: “We’re normal people and normal people drink soda and now you want to tax us for it? Screw you!”

As much as I really dislike this commercial, I have mixed feelings about the soda tax itself. On the one hand, the spirit behind the tax is commendable: it’s an attempt to effect change. According to that same Daily News article, it’s estimated that the tax will “reduce consumption [of soda] by 10%.” That’s not an insignificant number and considering how dire the situation is for so many overweight New Yorkers, it might make a real difference.

My issue is that the tax is like a tourniquet rather than a cure; it doesn’t address the root of the problem. What is that root? It’s impossible to say. Why do so many Americans, especially children, drink soda? Is it the ubiquity of soda (specifically Coca-Cola) in American culture? Is it Simon, Randy, Ellen and Kara’s fault that they sip from giant Coca-Cola goblets each night? Or is it the parents’ fault for not controlling what their kids drink? Must we wean our children off Coca-Cola? Or would some call that “un-American”?

Notice, of course, who paid for that commercial at the top: The American Beverage Association. They have a vested interest in making the “soda tax” a politically charged issue rather than an issue based on something very real and very scary. Yet, it is a politically charged issue because it’s a question of who needs to take responsibility for our children’s welfare: the government or us? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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