On Jan. 1, Seattle began taxing sweetened beverages at a rate of 1.75 cents per ounce of soda, sports drink, iced tea and other products with added caloric sweeteners. The exceptions, according to the city of Seattle’s explanation of ordinance CB 118965, are beverages that have only natural fruit or vegetable juice with no additional sweetener, drinks with fewer than 40 calories in 12-ounce containers, and diet beverages with zero-calorie artificial sweeteners.
This tax targets the right problem in the wrong way. The idea behind the sweetened-beverage tax, presumably, is to cut down on Type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity by discouraging people from consuming unhealthy products. The $15 million collected from the tax is being allocated to food banks and healthy-eating programs. A large chunk of it will go to administrative and overhead costs and to expand various food and health services.
There are also at least two reasons people buy sugary drinks that aren’t due to ignorance of the health risks: cost and addiction.
It should be considered a public health emergency when water is less affordable than health-destroying drinks, but the answer is not to make those health-destroying drinks more expensive.
Like most taxes in America these days, this is a tax on the poor. Most people know that water is healthier than soda, but bottled water, aside from being an environmental disaster, has generally cost as much, if not more than, Coke or Gatorade. It should be considered a public health emergency when water is less affordable than health-destroying drinks, but the answer is not to make those health-destroying drinks more expensive. It’s to make healthy options cheaper and easier to choose than unhealthy options.
This is where addiction comes in. In a recent article published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, cardiovascular research scientist James DiNicolantonio and cardiologist James O’Keefe, both from Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, together with Dr. William Wilson, suggested that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. While there’s some debate about the comparison, there’s little doubt that sugar is addictive. It works on the same pleasure centers of the brain as illegal drugs. And taxing people for being addicted is not only cruel but ineffective.
Raising prices on substances to which millions of people are addicted can go only so far toward public-health goals. Other cities have enacted similar sugary-beverages taxes; Berkeley saw a 10 percent decrease in retail purchases of sweetened drinks. This does not mean, though, that people are getting healthier. Fruit juices and zero-calorie diet drinks are exempt from the tax, but sugars from fruit still spike blood sugar and contribute to liver dysfunction — they’re not “the good kind of sugar” we’ve been led to believe, especially in high amounts as are in fruit juices. Diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners, which are being shown to be even more damaging for your health than pure cane sugar. We are not going to get diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s (which some now call Type 3 diabetes) under control until we drastically reduce our consumption of sugar. Replacing sugar with equally sweet substances prolongs the cravings for sugar rather than reprograms the body to start craving what it actually needs. If the goal truly is public health, exempting fruit drinks and diet sodas deeply undermines it.
The target should be the sugar industry, which has known for decades both about the addictive properties of its product and about the risks to human health it poses.
The target should be the sugar industry, which has known for decades both about the addictive properties of its product and about the risks to human health it poses. While the idea of using taxation to control people’s personal choices is patronizing and flawed, imposing taxes on the sugar industry for wasting resources to produce unhealthy products for consumption is the sensical and appropriate action to take. The target should also be the soda industry: It takes about 132 gallons of water to make two liters of soda; that is an offensive waste of water we cannot afford to continue allowing.
The problem is that we likely wouldn’t need such measures of control in the first place if we had a political system in which imposing taxes on the corporations responsible for harming our health and environment were feasible. But targeting poor people, as this country seems committed to doing, is economically nonsensical and morally unacceptable.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
An earlier version of this article mistated the tax rate per ounce of soda. It has been corrected.
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