Lawmakers faced with tough choice over proposed soda tax

You’ve got to admit that we are a bit inconsistent about the way in which we make our laws. We tax the hell out of evil cigarettes which, even as they suck the life out of people, are legal. Yet we arrest people for using marijuana, despite the fact that doing so can bring them respite from terrible diseases like cancer and glaucoma. We could be taxing marijuana but we choose not to. We know that obesity is rampant in this country and sugar use by Americans is off the charts.

But we don’t tax sugar-laden soda, even though our heath commissioner tells us that this is the time to do just that. When people argue that sugar in sodas is the great Satan that is making our population fat, the soda companies reply that there are far worse things than soda. Their allies argue that we are talking trash because proposals to tax sodas that have sugar do not include proposals to tax other drinks, like those with Aspartame which some people think is a highly suspicious chemical ingredient.

No matter, the soft drink companies have a great deal of clout. Clearly, the public does not want to stop drinking soda because doing so would be inconvenient to their fast-paced lifestyle. Meanwhile, Type 2 diabetes has become a national epidemic that is scaring the stuffing out of our medical community. But hey, this is America where enough lobbyists and enough money can put a stop to ideas that protect the public. The unpopular (but often right) David Paterson is in favor of the tax on soft drinks. He expects that the revenues a new tax could generate will balance the budget. Some members of the Legislature, sensing impending doom in the coming elections, do not want people weaned from their sodas and have pronounced the new soda tax DOA or “dead on arrival.”

The problem for opponents of the bill is that this is a year when there really isn’t enough money to balance the budget. There is chaos out there. The school districts, the hospitals, and the local governments are all crying the blues. But out of adversity can come some good. I have no doubt that the single biggest problem with passing the soda tax is the fact that the Pepsi Cola Company is a big asset for the state of New York. Our decision makers do not want to alienate the firm. It’s sort of like a stock transfer tax that could bring a lot of needed money into state coffers. The problem with that one is that if the Stock Exchange picked up and moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey, New York would be in big trouble.

There is a current libertarian streak running through this country. People know that every time you put a tax on a popular product like soda, the little people are expected to pay more than their share. The economists call this a regressive tax and it is. Health Commissioner Richard Daines is wildly in favor of the tax. He feels that it will save lives and believes that just as the tax on cigarettes has helped cut down on the consumption of that killer product, the same thing will happen when taxes drive the price of a soda up.

Mothers and fathers, boards of education, and school administrators have already had soda machines removed from schools. They know full well that our kids need to be protected. It stands to reason that in removing remove soda machines from schools, we are acknowledging their potential for harm.

This is a budget crisis year and people distrust the Legislature. As our lawmakers look for ways to protect people from themselves, they may want to think about doing the right thing.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/5/10

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