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Would a Tax on Soda Really "Hurt" Families?

Good news, fellow families: the soda industry will spend “whatever it takes” to protect us from a tax on our favorite bottled sugar delivery systems. So that we won’t have to pony up an extra penny per ounce on nondiet sodas, energy drinks and artificial juices, companies like Coke and Pepsi will pour as much cash as they can muster into lobbying and advertising efforts in the District of Columbia–the latest place to consider such a tax, which the industry has already defeated in New York and Philadelphia.

It’s tough to imagine any better use for those funds, now that we’ve defeated obesity and provided a healthy lunch for all school kids–and especially since we’re all so in need of cheap extra calories. Who could possibly argue with the industry’s opposition to a tax that might reduce the gallon of sweetened beverages the average American drinks every week?

Actually, I’m having a hard time even typing the arguments against a soda tax. Economists have long encouraged a tax on any activity that imposes costs on society: thus the taxes on cars, tobacco and pollution. It’s an attempt to ensure that all costs of the activity (health care, clean-up, wear and tear on roads) are born by those who enjoy its benefits. As the New York Times reported today, the link between soda and obesity (and resulting health care costs associated with heart disease and diabetes) is scientifically stronger than the link between obesity and any other food or beverage. Add to that the fact that there’s no case to be made that anyone actually needs soda (an argument I’m sure you’ve had in your home), and the case for a soda tax is even stronger.

It’s hard to see how any amount of lobbying money could defeat such a reasonable argument–especially that last one, and especially in a recession. Tea Party movement aside, in order to pay for government programs (and even the most hard-core among us tend to support things like highways and 911), you have to tax something. Soda seems like an obvious choice. The proposed tax in New York would have raised $1 billion towards health care services in the state. The strongest argument against a soda tax: that such a tax would disproportionately affect poor citizens–sounds to many like an argument in favor of it as well.

Yet the soda tax failed in New York and Philadelphia and even in California it’s struggling against the might of the lobbying powers stacked up against it, which include not only the soda industry but grocery stores and bottlers as well, with some major donors in their ranks. Unlike the movement to pull soda out of schools, there’s no clear component of society actually supporting the tax, and that makes it easy for politicians to vote with their campaign budgets instead of with their brains.

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