Justin Guiffre: Soda tax will help alleviate D.C. obesity, health crisis

In the time it takes me to write this column, I will have finished all 20 ounces of a delicious Dr Pepper. I will have consumed 2.5 servings of soda, 64 grams of sugar, and if I drank one soda a day I would gain an average of 10 pounds over the next year. What did my carbonated corn syrup cost me? $1.25. What is it going to cost if the D.C. City Council approves Mary M. Cheh’s new soda tax? One cent more for every ounce, for a total of $1.45. And I would happily pay that tax.

Criticism of this new tax comes in a few forms. Opposing the measure from the D.C. City Council itself is councilmember Jack Evans. His concerns come from a similar “snack tax” that failed in the 1990s. Ellen Valentino, president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, has promised her organization and retailers will fight the bill. Others, mostly those who love any excuse to use the phrase “big government,” argue the D.C. City Council shouldn’t be trying to control how people eat through taxes.

For me, none of these arguments hold water (or soda if you prefer). The truth is, D.C. faces a serious public health crisis and the soda tax is a perfectly sound initiative to solve some of the District’s problems.

The District has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation, and in some neighborhoods more than half of the children are overweight. According to Cheh’s proposal, the 1-cent-per-ounce could be the single best measure for fighting the obesity epidemic in general, a statistic she pulled from Center for Disease Control studies. The tax would work to reduce consumption and bring D.C.’s childhood obesity rate down.

Perhaps, even more important than the effects of the tax, is the direction of the revenue. Around $6 million of the estimated $16 million generated by the tax would help fund the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, a much-needed educational initiative.

Evans argues it would be a repeat of the failed 5.75 percent tax on snack foods, which was repealed in 2001 due to widespread confusion over its application. But this is a specious and irrelevant comparison. Implementation of a soda tax would be much easier to implement and enforce. The bill is even designed so the tax is levied on distributors, leaving the confusion of an added retail tax out of the equation.

It is natural that the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association would be against the tax. It is a tax on the soda industry. But to claim the tax is regressive ignores the fact that sodas are a luxury, not a necessity. It is true soda will be more expensive, and therefore a bigger strain on some family’s budgets. But since when was soda a good that people absolutely had to have?

Public health expenditures are a good investment. Education is probably the number one tool for reversing negative health trends. Education can be directly correlated to positive health and reducing health risk factors in a number of ways. And because so much of our behavior is learned from our parents, the benefits will continue through the generations. This education needs to be funded somehow, and the soda tax is a prime example of a source of funding that will also reduce unhealthy behavior.

Fighting this tax is petty. Cheh has taken the reins on one of D.C.’s biggest problems and is finding very reasonable ways to not only fund her educational program but also to help the city close its budgetary shortfall. Even after finishing my Dr Pepper, I’m willing to say those goals are worth the extra 20 cents.

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

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