Gabrielle Friedman: Taxing soda isn’t the way to make people make better health choices

The District of Columbia is synonomous with power, politics and, most recently, taxes. On the heels of the 5-cent bag tax, which goes toward cleaning up the Anacostia River, D.C. councilmember Mary M. Cheh proposed a new tax on soda products the last week of April. The tax of 1-cent-per-ounce on soda is aimed at funding the recently passed Healthy Schools Act, legislation that seeks to remove sugary beverages, including soda, some juices and other insalubrious foods from school cafeterias all over the District. I am a non-soda drinker and a huge proponent of the movement for healthier drinking options in schools. However, the use of this tax to promote a healthy lifestyle for consumers is flawed.

To start, a 1-cent-per-ounce tax will not deter those who drink soda regularly from using the product. As I write this column in Gelman, I can see the dependence on caffeine – represented by the bottles of Coca-Cola lining the floor of study rooms – is not going to disappear because students have to pay an extra 12-cents for it. This is not a bag tax, where you can just bring your own bag and avoid paying extra money altogether. This is a tax on a product that so many people are already dependent on.

Similarly, the notion that this policy will stop soda dependence is overly optimistic. Take cigarettes, for example. Sure, in some states and in D.C. the cigarette tax is high, but when was the last time you walked through campus without seeing at least five students smoking? According to a study conducted by Patrick Gallagher of Elon University, higher taxes minutely decreased smoking for those in the 18-to-24 age range, due to a lack of disposable income. All other age groups did not demonstrate a decrease in consumption, while those in the 18-to-24 range who could afford to smoke continued to do so.

Now some may think if people continue to drink soda, it will just amount to more money for the Healthy Schools legislation, making this is a fundamentally beneficial policy. However, since a major goal of the D.C. City Council is to better the health of D.C. residents and not just raise money for the Healthy Schools fund, if overall soda consumption does not decrease as hoped, the tax will be a policy failure.

I am known as a fiscal conservative, but I do take issue with the government penalizing citizens for using something that, in moderation, is not dangerous to their health. Soda, like all unhealthy foods and drinks, is dangerous when consumed in excess. So what is next? A tax on fast food? A tax on chocolate? These products are unhealthy when overused, but is it really fair to force the people who drink them conservatively to pay more for them?

The real way to encourage healthy eating is not through government intervention, but through the home. I started this column by mentioning that I do not drink soda, and that is because my parents taught me from a young age soda is not good for you. We simply didn’t keep it in the house. This may be a little extreme for some households, but the point is it’s the role of parents to educate their children about health.

Ultimately, this legislation is being aimed at children who consume soda. But where do children get money for lunch? A parent can just as easily hand over an extra couple of cents to their child for a soda at lunch, and a parent can just as easily buy a bottle of soda for the entire household. This legislation is not a solution to the problem; it is just treating a symptom. It does not show parents that an excess of soda is a real health issue. Increased awareness among parents and in schools, not fiscal policy, will cause a change in the diets of children.

While I admire the D.C. City Council for recognizing the growing issue of childhood obesity, I cannot say I agree with its means of achieving change. All this policy will do is cause soda-dependent consumers to reach into their wallets for a few extra cents when paying. If the D.C. City Council’s primary motivation is our health, and not funding for the Healthy Schools Act, then it will reject the proposal for a D.C.-wide soda tax.

The writer, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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