Bloated Numbers Derail “Fat Tax” Argument

Over the weekend, Albany Times-Union columnist and Cornell University associate professor Jennifer Wilkins called us out for our opposition to “fat taxes” as a weight loss policy measure. Interestingly, Wilkins, a supporter of the now-dead New York soft drink tax proposal, wields the mantle of consumer freedom in support of her arguments. She writes: “When the objective is to fill up while spending as little as possible, a 16-ounce soda containing 500 calories makes more sense than a cup of fresh strawberries with only 150 calories. Food prices shackle consumer freedom.”

Unfortunately for Wilkins, reality shackles her rhetoric. A sixteen-ounce soda has about 180 calories—nowhere close to her claim of a whopping 500 calories. And unless she's suggesting we should only sip water, "healthier" beverage substitutions like milk and juice typically have more calories than soda. It’s an interesting dilemma that TIME writer Barbara Kiviat noted last week:

In this recent study, researchers found that when kids drink less soda they drink more whole milk. Switching out a 140-calorie can of soda for a 225-calorie glass of milk may be desirable—milk is nutritious; soda isn't—but the substitution illustrates the risk of assuming less soda necessarily means less poundage. As a heavy-set member of the DC city council said in one meeting, “There is an obesity problem. I'd say I'm an expert on that. But I don't like soda. I don't drink it.”

That’s the key flaw with “fat tax” proposals like the one Wilkins supports. Calories are calories, and there are plenty of skinny people who drink sugared beverages and plenty of obese people who don’t. Singling out one kind of food or drink as the obesity culprit is missing the forest for the trees.

Consumer freedom means giving consumers information and letting them decide for themselves. Given that the stated goal of “fat tax” activists is to nudge consumers toward certain decisions by tinkering with the tax code, only a cynical Orwellian linguist would imply this ploy advances the cause of “freedom.”

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