At the risk of being mistaken for a tool of soft-drink industry, or worse yet, a Libertarian, I am jumping once again into the debate over government action to curb our consumption of sugary beverages. (Well, someone’s consumption; I don’t touch the stuff anymore. I don’t believe anyone should.)
I stated my position a month ago, in response to calls by New York City officials for a ban on the use of food stamps to purchase soda-pop. Another East Coast official, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, has been pressing for a soda-pop tax to discourage consumption and thus combat obesity.
My position is that government should butt out. I’m not a big fan of taking symbolic action in response to a real crisis.
A new socio-economic study has increased my conviction that taxing or even banning soda-pop would do nothing to improve America’s collective weight problem. Indeed, it would be a dangerous distraction and waste of time.
In “The Socio-Economic Causes of Obesity,” researchers Charles L. Baum and Shin-Yi Chou address the question of why obesity has become epidemic in the U.S. in the last 30 years. They examined changes in food prices, physical activity at work, restaurant prevalence, urbanization, employment, and cigarette smoking in the period 1979-1997.
They found that the biggest single factor contributing to weight gain is the decline in cigarette smoking. According to Baum and Chou, that decline accounts for a whopping two-percent of our national weight gain.
Other factors each account for even a smaller share of the problem.
What we have here, folks, is a problem than can’t be solved by attacking a single food or beverage. As Baum puts it in an op-ed published yesterday at Philly.com, “the dynamics of obesity are far more complex than the soda critics suggest.”
Baum and Chou calculated that “fast-food prices, grocery prices, and restaurant prevalence were all statistically insignificant” factors in Americans’ weight increase. That means that a stronger case can be made for cutting cigarette taxes than increasing soda-pop taxes as a way of fighting obesity.
I think their calculations and data should be cross-checked by other researches, and more studies like this should be done. In the meantime, I remain convinced that soda-pop taxes are pointless — except, perhaps, as a way to raise revenue.
No doubt ambitious politicians and assorted busy-bodies will go on calling for such taxes, or other government action, against this whipping-boy de jour. As I have said before, I won’t shed a tear for the demise of Coke or Pepsi or any other soft-drink companies. I believe I’m healthier for avoiding their products.
I may be thinner, too, but not merely, or even mainly, because I gave up sugary drinks.
There’s a long list of foods I gave up.
If any East Coast officials want the list, send me an email.