The usual suspects, Vermont statists, are at it again. They are seeking to manage the behavior of citizens in a direction that they deem to be “better” and to penalize those who do not fall in line.
This latest assault is the renewal of a proposal to impose a 2 cent per ounce tax on beverages that contain added sugar such as soda and sports drinks. Based on prices at a local minimart, this would result in about a 27% increase in the cost of a bottle of soda. Supporters of the law claim that it is needed to help reduce the incidence of obesity, which is one of the drivers of higher health care costs. They claim that such taxes would be as successful in reducing obesity as those on tobacco have been on reducing smoking. They point out that everyone knows that when you tax something you get less of it. (Funny they do not bring up this argument when they want to raise income or capital gains taxes, but that is a post for another day.)
This list compares various beverages by how many calories they contain per ounce. Note that the two lowest values are the only ones that would be taxed under the proposal from 2014.
Contrary to what the supporters claim, such taxes are unlikely to achieve the predicted results. Taxes on tobacco do appear to have reduced the number of people who smoke but there are differences between tobacco and sugary drinks. One glaring example is the existence of products that can be substituted for the one being taxed. While there are, or were, no substitutes for tobacco products, there are many substitutes for sweetened beverages that will not be affected by the tax. Drinks such as fruit juices and milk products, sweetened or not, may contain more nutrients than soda but as far as obesity goes they are just as bad or, in the case of sweetened full fat dairy drinks, likely worse. As the Harvard School of Public Health’s website points out:
Fruit juice is not a better option. Even though it has more nutrients, it contains as much sugar (though from naturally occurring fruit sugars rather than added sugar) and calories as soft drinks.
Even if the taxes did actually have the predicted effect of reducing obesity, my question would be, “So what?” It simply is not the proper role of the government to nudge, let alone compel by force, and taxes are force, individuals to act in a way that the government approves of. Especially those who are not violating the rights of others. It does not matter for what reason it is being done nor what behavior we are being nudged towards or away from.
In the United States, the Declaration of Independence lays out what the proper role of government is: to protect each individual’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (I would add property to this list as well. Just try to pursue happiness or even live if you do not have the right to keep and use the property you acquire, including the money you earn.) The means by which the government protects these rights is by removing the initiation of force from society and maintaining a monopoly on it’s retaliatory use against those who do initiate it, whether that use is the violence or fraud of a criminal or the attacks of foreign enemies. In other words, they only initiate force against those who are violating the rights of others.
Rather than protecting individual rights, with this tax the government is in fact violating them. Contrary to the principles of the proper role of government, they are initiating force against those who have not violated the rights of anyone. Those who consume sugary drinks are not violating the anyone’s rights, even if they consume them to excess such that they damage their health. To those who might claim that obesity increases health care costs for some individuals and those costs would fall on society, violating our rights in the process, I would ask another question. Why? Why should I be responsible for the poor choices of another, or another be responsible for mine?
Contrary to what those in government apparently think, we are all capable of making our own choices and should be left alone to deal with the consequences of those choices, good or bad. These taxes sacrifice the rational, those who consume such beverages in moderation or in pursuit of values that require concentrated energy (e.g. athletes), in favor of the irrational, those who consume enough to harm their health.