I went to school outside of Philly and still have a lot of Facebook friends in that area, so the city’s proposed soda tax is a hot topic on my friends list. One outspoken friend is all for it, arguing that it will fund needed programs and will make people healthier. As you might have guessed if you’ve read this blog, I’m not a fan.
Soda, the argument goes, isn’t food. It’s a luxury, a vice, something no one needs, and therefore something that it’s harmless to tax. Technically speaking, I don’t think that’s true. Drinking less soda would probably be optimal for most people, but soda is most definitely food. It fulfills the first, most basic, function of food by providing energy. If you really think soda isn’t food, give one group of lab rats access only to soda and another group access only to celery and see which lives longer.
My biggest gripe with soda taxes is that your mayor or your senator or your fellow voters are the *last* people who should have any say in what your diet looks like. That responsibility is yours and yours alone. Politicians aren’t doctors or dietitians, and I think they’re severely overstepping by trying to tax people into “good” eating habits, while playing on bias against fat people (because anything that makes there be fewer fat people, or that you can claim makes there be fewer fat people is an unmitigated good, supposedly). But even if every registered dietitian on the planet had signed off on the idea, I’d still be opposed. Both because of the insulting paternalism and because it’s an attempt to make it harder for people to access a food without any attempt to allow them to meet that need in other ways.
And, as much as people may deny it, there are health and wellness related reasons to drink soda. Its primary purpose is pleasure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people for whom it doesn’t meet a need. There are people with jobs that don’t give them a real meal break or allow them to eat while working, for whom a soda is the only lunch they’re going to get. There are people who don’t have reliable access to sufficient food, for whom a cheap, generic soda provides needed calories. There are people with stomach bugs and morning sickness drinking ginger ale because it stays down. There are people with eating disorders who can sometimes tolerate a sugary drink when they can’t force themselves to eat food. And no tax can distinguish between “buying this because it’s tasty” and “buying this because it’s necessary.”
Years ago, I was at an SCA event with a group of friends. We were walking and talking, and when we looked back, one friend was no longer there, having dropped to his knees several feet back. He’s hypoglycemic, and his sugar was crashing. We headed to the soda machines, and the first machine took his money and didn’t spit out the promised sugary beverage. I was more than a little worried by this time, and I remember praying that God would *please* let the other machine work. When it did, I joked later that it was my first miracle for sainthood, since I hit the button without actually putting money in it. (I’m more of a deist now, and don’t really believe in a micromanaging God or a causal relationship between my whispered “Please” and the soda machine’s cooperation, but I know that it *felt* like manna from heaven.)
In the year or so between when I started experiencing major hypothyroid symptoms and when I found a doctor who would actually treat those symptoms, I self-medicated with caffeine. This wasn’t a good thing for my anxiety or my blood pressure, but at the time it felt like my only option. And I had a desk job with sick leave. For another untreated hypothyroid sufferer who has to stay awake to watch their kids, or keep their job, that caffeine could truly be a necessity.
Now, I’m sure the anti-soda folks will argue that any of the above uses of soda could be better met by a “healthier” source of calories like juice or fruit, or a less sugary source of caffeine, like coffee. But a tax designed to make it harder for people to buy soda doesn’t make it easier for them to buy apple juice, or to buy other foods to meet that calorie gap. Nor does jacking up the prices at the soda machine somehow necessitate that a workplace will provide coffee or add juice to the vending options. And, sure, pretty much every situation where someone *needs* soda has underlying issues, but nothing about a soda tax fixes any of those issues. It’s one thing to point out that a broken pair of crutches, held together with duct tape, is unsafe and not optimal, but don’t take the crutches *away* without providing a safe and functional set, and pretend you’re helping. And even where soda isn’t a crutch, but simply a pleasure, pleasure isn’t evil, and people deserve to have food they enjoy, without an overzealous government trying to tax it away from them.