Soda Taxers Fight Bad Polls with Junk Studies

130501_SUG_ColaDrinkTwo items of interest this week for the thirsty: The Pew Research Center polling unit has released its latest findings on Americans’ view of obesity policy and politics, and USA Today reports on the “latest study” by the paternalist crowd that wants to ban or tax soft drinks.

For the likes of obese obesity scold Kelly Brownell and outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Pew poll is brutal. People reject the soda tax both men have pushed at various points by almost two to one,  and reject bans on large soda by an even greater margin. There’s a reason Bloomberg (who was term-limited and couldn’t face election again) did an end-run around the City Council: Essentially nobody wants soda bans. Fortunately, his attempt has been enjoined by a New York State appeals court.

The poll doesn’t even consider a possible factor where people might say what they think a pollster wants to hear. (People sometimes worry that a live interviewer will judge them harshly for going against a perceived consensus: Pollsters and psychologists call this the “social desirability bias.”) When soda taxes have been put to votes in liberal areas (most recently the hippie skiing town of Telluride, Colorado) voters have shot them down by wider margins than national polls find. In middle America, there might be a stronger “from my cold, dead hands” attitude towards government intrusion into what people drink.

Facing political headwinds like that, soda taxers are getting more desperate with their attempts to justify their continued crusade. USA Today reports on the presentation of an unpublished abstract of a not-yet-peer-reviewed experiment purportedly showing that people would buy lower-calorie products if full-calorie products were more costly. The finding sits somewhere on the scale between “duh” and “so what,” but activists hope to use it to revive the soda tax after five straight electoral (and dozens of state legislative) knockouts.

But consumers should be wary of fake compromises like this one. Recall that a couple of months ago, a San Jose city councilman introduced an absolute prohibition on flavored soft drinks, even if they had zero calories. The arch-prohibitionist Center for Science in the Public Interest may have started its war on non-alcoholic beverages by taking aim at sugared sodas, but it will come for the rest in time. Best to keep to the current path, and let consumers make their own, personally responsible decisions.

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