We live in an uncertain world, and yet we can be quite certain that there will be politicians who seek to tax us more. Some activists who want to protect us from ourselves have argued for a soda excise tax. A recent academic paper in Health Affairs contended such a tax could prevent some 26,000 premature deaths per decade. The American Beverage Association, not surprisingly, released a statement in response, critical of such a move.
Last year, four states enacted soda excise taxes and twelve additional states introduced similar legislation. Voters should continue to remain wary of any future attempts by state legislators to impose a tax on soda, candy, fast food, and other allegedly harmful foods and beverages. As states seek new ways to raise revenue, the temptation to impose such taxes will increase. It must be resisted.
The current debate between supporters and proponents of a soda tax has implications far beyond the possibility of having to pay an extra cent or two for a soft drink on a hot summer day. One does not ordinarily think of soda taxes as constituting an imposition on personal liberty. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that this debate goes to the heart of what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to make decisions for ourselves even if they aren’t always best for our health, or would we rather delegate part of our decision-making to the government?
We can accept the validity of nutritional data and scientific evidence regarding the link between sugar consumption and diabetes and still think that utilizing the tax code to change social behavior is misguided. There are both obvious and hidden perils in using the tax code to alter, or penalize, individuals’ personal lifestyle choices. Intuitively, taxing harmful behavior makes sense. Those who engage in activities that are not considered healthy either for themselves or for others, so the thinking goes, should be obligated to pay a surcharge.
The decision as to what constitutes “harmful” activity, however, is often a subjective one. Who decides what is harmful and what is not? It would be far better to leave this decision to families and individuals rather than to the state. Going down the road of taxing things that are, in some sense, bad for you would open the door for future initiatives by disparate political constituencies. There is a reason why paternalism has a pejorative connotation.
A soda tax would also be regressive. Taxes that require every person, no matter their socioeconomic status, to pay an extra cent or two per soda would disparately impact the poorest individuals in society. For people with six-figure salaries, this may not seem like much. For people living at or near the poverty level, however, every cent that they can keep for themselves truly does count.
While people should be concerned about nutrition and eating well, it would be a mistake to delegate that determination to the government. Since these decisions are better left to individuals and families, voters should reject soda tax initiatives.
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