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Column: Laugh it up, Republicans, but a soda tax is a serious response to a deadly serious problem

Close Up Of Boy Drinking Soda From Bottle
As conservatives scoff at the latest proposal for a California soda tax, economists say this is a proven way to influence behavior and potentially save lives.
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Conservatives found much to chuckle about after Democratic state lawmakers last week proposed, once again, a tax on sugary sodas, along with limits on cup sizes.

“We get it, too much sugar isn’t great for you,” Assembly Republicans said in a smirking, smart-alecky statement.

“But what’s next — criminalizing pizzas over 18 inches? A Dorito tax? Only one squirt of butter on your movie theater popcorn? A fine for not eating your broccoli?”

Yeah, there’s nothing like a little snark when faced with serious proposals to combat a public health crisis.

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The Assembly Republicans dismissed their Democratic colleagues’ “radical” ideas by saying liberals have “never seen a tax or regulation they don’t like.”

The reality is that California and the rest of the country are grappling with an obesity epidemic that has caused rates of diabetes, heart disease and other costly chronic illnesses to soar. And there is a long history of policymakers using taxes and regulations to influence behavior for the sake of the public good.

“In Econ 101, you learn that if something creates a negative externality — if there’s a harm — it’s economically efficient to tax that thing,” said Jon Bakija, an economist at Williams College.

Tobacco is an obvious example, he told me. It can harm the smoker and those around him. A tobacco tax, therefore, can discourage use through higher prices, and can raise revenue to address societal costs and fund education efforts.

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Similarly, a gas tax discourages use of environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels and motivates the petroleum industry to come up with cleaner products.

“There’s a strong case for trying to influence behavior when the market doesn’t get things right,” Bakija said.

If conservatives would stop sneering for a few minutes, maybe they’d understand that 40% of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than 93 million people.

Obesity rates are even higher among blacks and Hispanics. No less troubling, the obesity rate among kids and adolescents is a staggering 18.5%, affecting roughly 14 million young people.

The beverage industry insists that its products aren’t solely to blame for America’s expanding waistlines. But researchers say there’s clear evidence that the easy availability and relatively low cost of sugary drinks make them a leading contributor to the global obesity epidemic.

In fact, study after study shows that the more sugary drinks a person consumes, the greater the likelihood that person will end up obese.

A review of such research last year in the journal Obesity Facts found that 93% of studies reached the same conclusion: There is a link “between the onset of overweight or obesity and the consumption of sugary drinks in both children and adults.”

That’s what California lawmakers are trying to do something about. Unless critics have better ideas, they’d be wise to at least give these proposals a fair hearing.

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In his soda-tax bill, Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) says he hopes to raise money to not just educate consumers about the dangers of sugary drinks but also promote fitness and perhaps pay for related resources, such as school nurses.

He’s not sure yet how big a “beverage fee” to impose, but he’s considering 2 cents per fluid ounce, which would mean an additional cost of 24 cents for a 12-ounce can of soda. This would translate to $2 billion in annual revenue.

“This is not a Republican issue,” Bloom told me. “It’s not a Democratic issue. It affects everyone.”

I asked if he found it frustrating to have his ideas met with ridicule by state Republicans.

“Yes, it’s frustrating,” Bloom replied. “But I’m used to the barbs. They made the same kind of statements in the fight against tobacco.”

Another bill introduced last week was from Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who wants to prohibit California restaurants and stores from selling “Big Gulp”-style sodas.

“My proposal doesn’t prevent anyone from drinking as much soda as they want,” he told me. “You can go back for as many refills as you desire.”

So why limit the cup size?

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“The goal is to make people think twice about their choices,” Chiu said. “It’s to use that split-second when you’re thinking about a refill to perhaps get you to realize that this isn’t a good decision.”

Bloom’s and Chiu’s bills are supported by the California Medical Assn. and California Dental Assn.

Also, it’s not such a radical idea. Numerous other countries have taxes on sugary beverages. In the United States, soda taxes have been introduced in Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and a number of other cities. In each case, the levies are intended to help guide consumers to healthier choices.

A report last week from UC Berkeley said that city’s soda tax resulted in a more than 50% decline in consumption of sugary beverages.

Many people undoubtedly are shaking their heads and thinking, “Keep nanny-state lawmakers out of my personal decisions. If I want to get fat drinking soda, that’s my business.”

Economists would counter that taxes don’t just protect people from the immediate harm of bad behavior. They also protect your future self, who would possibly see things differently.

In other words, maybe you’re all about personal choice at the moment, but 20 years from now, when you’re wrestling with complications from Type 2 diabetes or a stroke, you might wish you’d have behaved differently. A soda tax anticipates that.

Then there’s the common-sense element. Sure, it might be more fun or comfortable to ride a motorcycle without a helmet or drive a vehicle without a seat belt. But there’s plenty of data to prove that’s just stupid. So we have laws to protect us from making really bad decisions and to save people’s lives.

The beverage industry spends billions annually trying to get you to do something that’s not in your interest — to consume sugary drinks rather than healthier alternatives, such as water.

“The idea that we should use taxes to steer people toward decisions that are socially better is not a left-wing idea,” said Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley. “If anything, it’s a conservative strategy.

“Besides, we need government revenue, and it is much better to get it by discouraging people from doing something that is not in the public interest.”

Is a soda tax an unwelcome intrusion on your personal freedom? Of course it is.

“Conservatives and libertarians will say that we should just leave people alone,” Bakija at Williams College said. “They’ll tell you that it’s a matter of personal choice. But do they make the same argument about heroin? No, they don’t.”

Heroin is highly addictive and can kill you, so we prohibit its use.

Sugar is highly addictive and can kill you.

And the best some can do is crack jokes?

About a problem that costs Americans more than $175 billion a year, according to the CDC, and is associated with some of the leading causes of death?

Like I say, if you’ve got a better idea, speak up, please.

Otherwise, you’re just part of the problem.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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