I Publius: Eyeing taxes on real drugs: Salt, sugar

    The last time I looked, heart disease was still the number one killer. Next in line are the various cancers and the havoc they wreak.

    We are a free society, but we do have rules. We have decided as a group that some drugs are very, very bad, and we incarcerate the people who sell them. Heroin is a terrible drug. Some of the new designer drugs can screw up a person for life. But by no means are these drugs the greatest killers in our society. In fact, I think a case can be made that two of the items on many people’s dining room tables take far more lives than these drugs. They are sugar and salt. That’s right, I said sugar and salt.

    New York City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden is trying to get food producers and consumers to stop using salt. He is absolutely right. Salt causes high blood pressure and high blood pressure can cause stroke and heart attacks. Ipso facto, we have to wean ourselves off salt. It’s that simple. So, is salt as addictive as certain other white powders? I know some people who cannot put anything in their mouths if they haven’t added salt. Do you have any of them in your house? I’ll bet you do. Do you try to protect them?

    So what can you do about all of this? I do a great deal of the cooking in my house. I simply do not add salt to anything. When guests come, I tell them I don’t cook with salt and they are free to add it if they wish.

    When I shop, I carefully examine the labels and look for the ones that say “no salt added.” Things like canned tomatoes are filled with sodium, so I buy cans with the “no salt added” designation. This is why it is always wise to cook with fresh ingredients because canned goods are, for the most part, loaded with sodium. You may think this is all a lot of hooey, so here is my personal testimony.

    About 10 years ago, I went to my cardiologist and he was concerned that my blood pressure numbers were going up. He asked me all the right questions about exercise, and I proudly gave him all the right answers. He looked at me and suggested I cut salt from my diet. If that didn’t work, he said, we’d have to proceed to the medications that people take for high blood pressure. I did what he told me and became a bit of a fanatic on the matter. My blood pressure came screaming down to below average. It was almost instantaneous.

    Up in Albany, New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines has taken on sugar consumption. We live in an overweight, obese society where diabetes and heart disease are on the rise. Daines wants to tax sodas with sugar in them. Obviously, he is trying to help his governor balance the budget. But at the same time, he is doing an incredibly important thing. We know that the as we raise taxes, consumption drops. Just look at cigarettes.

    Like it or not, sugar is just as dangerous. Of course, this is bad news for all the candy stores and all the wonderful bakeries and all the chocolate chip cookie makers (my personal downfall), but it is what it is. The calories in sugar are empty and wasteful, and we have become addicted to the stuff. Although it is a matter of personal choice for all of us adults, we do have to protect our kids.

    I was passing a candy store the other day, just like the ones I used to frequent as a kid. A father was bringing his young children into the place. Unluckily for our sugar-loving children, we now know a lot more about what ails us than we did 64 years ago when I was a tiny tot. I now imagine a skull and crossbones over sugar products. I don’t eat ice cream, even though I love the stuff. Lemonade with sugar is out. When I make chicken wings at home, Roselle insists that I put some of that great barbecue sauce over hers. I eat mine straight, as permitted on Atkins.

    Gandhi led a march in India when the British tried to tax salt. I don’t think they were doing it to help the Indians but maybe, as it turns out, they were doing the right thing for their health. What do you think?

    Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/31/09

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