I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

>> Thursday, May 20, 2010

*Political commentary is not this blog's forte. So this is a departure from the norm. But hey, at least it's food related, right?

Recently, bills have been floating around various levels of government proposing a tax on soda that will jump the cost of a serving by a few cents. Or there were bills floating around. The soda industry spent millions courting Congress and Albany and got them either knocked out or back-burnered. We'll see how well they fare in NYC, as Governor Patterson tries for round two upstate.

Some of you reading this might think that the industry's opposition pressure is a good thing; that a tax on sugary sweet deliciousness is a tax on hard-working families, a tax on the poor, a tax on kids' fun, a tax on childhood itself. Some of you might think that, hey, if you're fat it's not the government's job to convince you to eat right. A la Parks And Recreation's Ron Swanson: "The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so. To me, that's beautiful." After all, personal responsibility built America. But of course, that's a simplistic fantasy and is about as accurate as saying that we went to the moon "because it was there" as though the Soviets weren't a factor at all. No, personal responsibility, while important, has always been coupled in America with a strong sense of civic responsibility.

I, for the record, am solidly pro-soda tax. I'm sure that this might give stress headaches and twisting gas pains to some folks out there who ride the Any-tax-is-a-bad-tax-and-the-government-is-bad train (next stop, Frankfort, Kentucky), but let's not play bullshit with each other. We're too fat. We are. Period. This is a non-debatable issue. And obesity costs the government money, which in turn costs us money, which in turn costs me money. And I likes me my money and this tax revenue will go towards health programs which will prop up clinics so that those of us who don't need triple bypasses won't have to fund as much of the financial burden of this weight crisis. Plus, the higher prices are bound to reduce soda consumption, just the way cigarette taxes reduced smoking. Thus, fewer obese people --> fewer people in the hospital --> tax dollars go farther --> burden on the medical system reduced --> emergency room congestion reduced --> shorter wait time for you when your Chinatown bus catches on fire. Plus, those who still insist on getting their annual heart attack will have been subsidizing their visit, a few cans of Mountain Dew at a time.

I do NOT, it must be said, advocate banning soda. I think that if you really really want full sugar soda, go nuts. Drink away. In fact, I encourage it. But, like cigarettes, Hummers, Louis Vuitton purses and getting kicked squarely in the balls by someone with nipple rings wearing a leather bustier and holding a cat-o-nine-tails, soda is a luxury, albeit an admittedly inexpensive one. Unless there's some rare disease I don't know about, no one needs to inhale a gallon of soda or quasi-juice sugar water like Hi-C every day. If you want it, go get it. I just think you should have to pay for it and I don't think it's fair that society should have to foot the bill for your diabetes medication.

The beverage lobby made a series of ads decrying the tax. They, actually more than almost anything else, cemented my opinion to be pro-soda tax. Here they are, and here's why they suck:

Bad acting aside, these are offensive to our collective intelligence on so many levels. Mom implies that the 70 cents extra she pays on soda might be the straw that will break her camel's financial back and send her attractive suburban family into foreclosure, but then she walks into a large home on a not-so-poor block. Still, other than her condescending tone of voice, this one isn't terrible. The others are. Mom decries a tax on full-sugar soda at a supermarket fancy enough to have a video game section (GameStop & Shop?), then fills her cart up with fruits and vegetables and doesn't buy any soda!?! After fishing and setting up a campsite, Dad tells us that "taxes never made anybody healthy". I know some former smokers who might disagree with that statement, and if your grandmother is on Medicare or Uncle Lou is getting treated at the VA, then you're related to some people whose health is linked squarely to taxes. Still, the worst ad is a NYC-centered one.

This ad highlights two groups of potential victim. First victim, the poor. The majority of his customers, Mr. Pioneer Supermarket Guy tells us, bring notepads and calculators to figure out their food budget. It makes the inference that poor inner city folks will be unfairly hit by this tax. But this requires the viewer to conclude that these poor inner city folks must buy soda. They have to! Soda, like rent and car payments, are part of a household's non-discretionary spending budget. My God, what kind of sick, twisted animal would expect their children to drink milk or... heaven forbid, water, instead of Fanta? The second victim is our concerned narrator, Mr. Pioneer Supermarket Guy, representing the hanging on by his teeth small businessman. See, if his customers are forced by Big Brother to spend more money on their non-discretionary soda, then they will either not purchase other items because their budget ran dry, or they'll stop buying soda and replace it with... nothing... and either way he'll suffer from a loss of revenue. and presumably have to fire his entire staff and live on the food stamps his customers are paying with anyway. But again, this requires that we leap to conclude that the soda purchase is inevitable and that soda/sweet drinks have nothing that they can possibly be replaced with. We have to conclude that those ladies on line had no choice whatsoever but to buy three gallons of Sunny D. Of course, this makes no sense unless one also makes the assertion that the poor are addicted to junk food like it's crack. But really, they don't have to buy a juice-like orange-tic-tac flavored sugar water beverage. They can get something else. If they bought water or milk, then then the Supermarket Guy will simply adjust around the customers the way he would with any new product line phase-in or phase-out and give more shelf space to the other drinks. Remember Cosmopolitan Magazine's yogurt? Neither does the dairy aisle. Market economics at work.

Anyway, Bloomberg & Co. is pro tax and in response to the industry's opposition, NYC ran it's own ad. It's definitely more slick, but somewhat more... nauseating.

Naturally, the best video of the bunch, the ad that says the most with the least amount bullshit, is also the most boring.

I was at Stop & Shop the other week. Ahead of me on line was a family, two kids and two adult women, doing their weekly or bi-weekly grocery trip. These people seemed like nice people, but they clearly weren't shopping with any sense of health in mind whatsoever. Or if they were, it was a warped sense of what healthy is. They were obese. Mom was obese, her sister was obese, her kids were obese. As they unloaded their cart I looked at what they were unloading onto the belt. Chips, regular sodas, Entenmann's cakes, frozen pizza, bags of frozen french fries. The cart was filled to capacity but they managed to avoid any healthy food. I thought maybe there might be something hidden under the Doritos, but I was fooled. There were no vegetables, not even frozen ones. Forget buying water or orange juice, they didn't even have diet soda. It was all high calorie, high fat, high carbohydrate, processed junk food. They were buying Fruit Loops but I didn't see any milk. These are the very people that need this law and need it badly. It's no longer a matter of self control, because they aren't trying and failing. This family wasn't buying some healthy stuff and then negating the benefits with a years supply of frozen burritos. They weren't buying organic food under the misconception that organic food means you'll lose weight. This family just had no clue. They're going to die young and sooner than they should and that's their business. But before they kick, they're going to have a myriad of health problems that are likely to be a burden on the hospitals and doctors that the system pays for and then it's my business. Then it's our business. This is about prevention.

Think of it the mathematical way. If the average person drinks two (2) cans of soda per day (sometimes less, sometimes more), then they're drinking 730 cans per year. With 39 grams of sugar per can, that's 28,470 grams of sugar. Convert that to pounds and the average person is taking in 62.8 pounds of sugar, just by drinking soda, all without those burdensome vitamins.

For that, you need Diet Coke Plus, which actually isn't so bad...

So I'm not saying get rid of junk food (God knows I love it), just price it unattractively. I'll bet that if McDonalds hamburgers cost as much as a hamburger at DBGB, you'd see far fewer people ordering six of them at a time. If a bottle of regular 7-Up cost as much as a bottle of Absolut Citron, I'll bet you'll see far fewer people drinking it straight out of the bottle during Stargate marathons. Some people argue that diet soda tastes bad and that people won't make the switch for that reason. But that's total crap and I'm proof. I grew up on regular soda, so allow me to assure you that your taste buds shift within a few weeks and you learn to enjoy the diet stuff in pretty short order. In fact, regular Coke will start to exist solely to pour rum into.

If the tax fails, and I hope it doesn't, alternatively I propose that one way to get people to drink fewer sugary drinks is to mandate that the beverage industry only use ads from the 50s.

After watching that on TV for a while, I promise no one will ever drink Kool-Aid again.

I encourage comments. But because political issues fire up the blood, be civil. I have no desire to delete what people say. But I also won't hesitate to do so. Unlike Queens Central, I moderate.

Also, I apologize for the videos getting cut in half. They didn't embed properly from YouTube. Maybe someone knows what I did wrong. Alas...


Jeff May 21, 2010 at 8:54 AM  

I see where you'e coming from here, but I disagree. I mean, where do you draw the line? Trans fats, salt, soda ... where does it go from there? Is this really what our government needs to be focusing on right now? It's a free market and there's no reason to tax something just because it's "bad for you." It's a slippery slope.

Jon Parker May 21, 2010 at 9:29 AM  

Well, here's the thing. It seems like you're making twoo arguments. One is that this is the wrong time for such a tax (with the bad economy the govt has better things to focus on, etc.) and the other is that it's an over-reach of government to enter the dietary lives of the citizenry. Naturally, I don't agree (I mean, look how long that post was! I was on a roll!) and my reasoning is simple and financial. Dietary-related health problems are a burden on state and local budgets, which reduces the government's ability to pay for things like schools, roads, garbage pickup, and so forth. In the long term, the tax will reduce the number of people who need medical care and in the short term will generate revenue which will be paid for solely by the people who choose to consume the unhealthy products. Like I said, I'm not talking about a ban. And I disagree that it's over-reach because this problem in fact effects everyone in society. Those who are healthy see their tax dollars going into the health care of the unhealthy and the unhealthy are dying. Meanwhile that tax money isn't around to pay for new books in classrooms or to keep teachers from getting the axe. Free markets are nice and I support them, but the government has always been something of a belt on the sweatpants of free markets, especially when it comes to health. After all, we don't hear too many arguments about doing away with the restrictions on selling whiskey to toddlers.

In short, I don't see a slippery slope.

Wayno2424 May 22, 2010 at 10:27 AM  

Maybe if we lived in a place that did not tax like Europe your argument would have validity but enough is enough. I get hit with taxes directly, indirectly and passed on in terms of higher costs way too much in this city and a tax like this is unacceptable. NYC, NYS and the feds need tax reduction around these parts because NYC is at a breaking point and may lose its luster in more ways than one over our lifetime if the govt keeps strangling the economy and its citizens with new and higher taxes.

Jon Parker May 22, 2010 at 11:55 AM  

Wayno, then you've bought into "mom"'s argument that a few extra dollars per grocery bill is a killer and that "we just can't take another tax right now. But, of course, there is no "we". Don't be confused between the tax you have to pay and the tax you choose to pay. In this case only people making unhealthy purchases pay the tax.

 The thing is, when they get sick from an obesity related disease you, Wayno, will definitely pay. You will pay through reduced snow removal, fewer teachers, closed firehouses, and everything else that gets the axe because the hospitals were underfunded and because people chose to fatten themselves to death. Again, let them get fat. But let them pay a few bucks more to do so.

Meanwhile I'll drink diet soda and water and not pay another dime. 

EricMM,  May 22, 2010 at 4:41 PM  

I agree with you on the soda tax, but I wouldn't exempt diet soda's. They have no nutritive value...and, while water has no nutritive value either, it isn't (or shouldn't be) loaded with chemicals. Maybe make it less of a tax than the high fructose crap, but I wouldn't leave them off the hook.

Anonymous,  May 27, 2010 at 1:01 PM  

I really would like to support the tax, but something that disporportionately affects the poor just doesn't seem right to me.

Jon Parker May 27, 2010 at 1:59 PM  

That's the thing. It really doesn't disproportionately affect the poor any more than the average sales tax does. The more soda one buys, the more one pays. It is income indiscriminate. Furthermore, since the poor are disproportionately overweight, they're actually the ones who are most to gain from such a tax. A- it will discourage the purchase of sugary beverages: money saved or at the very least, no extra tax (if any). B- lower health bills and fewer hours/days missed from work, etc.: more $$ in bank and fewer wages lost. Health bills are the nation's number one reason for bankruptcy.

HarmSkills June 2, 2010 at 12:23 PM  

I am loving this blog! FH resident who likes fine dining!

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