Both Berkeley and San Francisco had ballot propositions this year regarding whether to institute a tax on soda (and many juices). The tax, at least in Berkeley, is only a cent per ounce, so the cost isn’t that high. And the proposition clearly riled up some huge corporations because every house has gotten fliers about this, and I hear ads about it on the radio constantly. Seriously, if I was to judge by my radio, there were only three election issues in California this year: a) the soda tax; b) a silly proposition requiring mandatory drug-testing for doctors; and c) a school superintendent’s race somewhere in the South Bay (between some guy named Turlock and another guy named someone else–did you know that Timothy Turlock has never been a classroom teacher and that the last time he ran a school district, it went bankrupt or something like that? Or maybe it was the other guy who was bad? I forget).
In my own life, I’m pretty anti-soda. I used to drink copious quantities of it, but I haven’t touched any in about three years. There’s something about it that is, quite frankly, a bit addictive. Soda-drinking does not obey the dictates of hunger. No one was ever hungry for soda. And soda-thirst cannot be satiated. Many people (myself included) are capable of drinking many sodas in a day. Mankind was not meant to consume food that was so sweet! (On the other hand, I am not a scientist. And I don’t know if science is as convinced on the health risks of soda as the public seems to think it is. But for the sake of this post, let’s assume that drinking soda is, actually, in some way worse than, for instance, drinking milk.)
But, on the other hand, there is something awfully paternalistic about this tax. It would be one thing if we as a people were like, “We drink too much soda. Soda is bad. Soda should be taxed.”
But is that what these ballot propositions are about? Or are they about one group of people telling another: “You drink too much soda. Soda is bad for you, and this soda drinking of yours needs to be discouraged.”
I think it’s more the latter than the former. Of course, eventually what happens in these cases is that the nannies brainwash the children. That’s why cigarette smokers often support increased restrictions on smoking. They’re ashamed of their habit, so they punish themselves.
I don’t know. When you’re dealing with broad, societal problems, you have to use policy mechanisms like taxes in order to discourage or encourage behavior. However, I hate the way these policies get transformed into personal imperatives. I feel as though taxes like these are only going to contribute to a world where people who drink soda are considered bad and people who eschew it are considered good. We already have enough of that with weight issues, and it’s disgusting. But it seems impossible to say “soda drinking should be discouraged” without also saying “people who drink soda are doing something that is wrong.” I guess maybe our mythos could be, “People who drink soda are paying a tax that exculpates them from the act: since societal costs have now been internalized in the cost of the product, people can drink it with a clear conscience,” but somehow I don’t think that’s the message that’s getting through.