Massachusetts Soda Tax Is Bad Science and Bad Politics

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has become the latest pol to jump on the soda tax bandwagon in the wrongheaded belief that kicking the fizz habit will make everyone skinnier. If Patrick’s proposal to eliminate the sales-tax exemption for soda and candy were to become law, Bay State consumers would have to fork over an additional $52 million annually. And for what?
Patrick claims soda makes kids fat. In a policy brief, he argues that “childhood obesity is a critical public health crisis” and ending the tax exemption is “a critical first step.” But science tells a different story. As we’ve reported, there is no evidence definitively linking the consumption of soft drinks with obesity. Patrick, along with New York Governor David Paterson (who recently proposed a soda tax), should actually review the ongoing scientific debate on the issue before needlessly punishing taxpayers with new demands.
This week, the New England Journal of Medicine published several letters from medical doctors who criticize Kelly Brownell for advocating soda taxes on obesity-policy grounds. In an October NEJM article, the veteran “Twinkie Tax” proponent cites four long-term studies that allegedly support a link between soft drinks and childhood pudginess. But the dissenting doctors point out that the studies failto prove any such thing.
For instance, Brownell cites a Brazilian study of 1,140 kids ages 9 to 12. It actually found that a program to discourage children from drinking sugary drinks actually had no effect on overall body weight. Likewise, a Boston study of 103 high school students who were asked to switch to diet drinks for 25 weeks (also cited by Brownell) didn’t lose weight compared to those students who drank regular sodas.
In his NEJM letter, Dr. Michael Kaplan writes:

The essential failure of these trials should give us pause. Before assigning blame for the obesity epidemic, we should have clinical evidence that an intervention to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is effective in achieving this goal.

Dr. Michael Rinaldi of the Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute says Brownell is unfairly singling out soft drinks since there are many behavioral choices that impose costs on society. “All high-caloric foods can be tied to obesity,” says Rinaldi. He adds that it really doesn’t make sense to limit taxes to only food. You might as well start taxing high-risk activities such as “gun and motorcycle ownership” or sedentary lifestyles.
There are other compelling scientific questions being asked about the supposed obesity-soda link. We suspect, though, that Governors Patrick and Paterson really don’t care about the science. They’re just looking for the flimsiest of excuses to subsidize their own bad behavior: excessive spending.

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