The real food police
If the penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages is passed by the Vermont Legislature, it will be a minor miracle. And if it sticks, despite the inevitable deluge of soft drink money that will try to persuade voters to overturn it, we can puff out our chests (while reducing our waistlines) as proud, independent Vermonters, leading the nation once again in the right direction. We would be the only state, so far, to impose such a tax.
Fat chance, though (pun intended). The obesity epidemic is all too real, with two-thirds of Americans overweight, and half of those are truly obese. This is not just a matter of, “Oh, gee, we’ve put on a few pounds.” It is killing us. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer are all associated with obesity. These diseases account for over a third of global human deaths.
Here in Vermont, we spend about $300 million a year on obesity-related medical costs, plus lost productivity. And sugar-laden beverages are the largest source of extra calories in our diet. Yes, there are plenty of other junk foods, but the sugar in drinks proves to be deceptively unfilling. It’s far too easy to consume far too much.
So a “sin tax” of some kind seems reasonable. It would raise much-needed revenue for health care and education (an estimated $27 million annually), even as it reduced consumption and, by putting the obesity epidemic onto a downward curve, would save money and lives.
In the past few years, many other states, as well as the federal government, have considered a tax on sugary beverages. Maine (2008) and Washington state (2010) legislators passed the tax, but the beverage behemoths managed to persuade voters to repeal it. Similar efforts to tax soft drinks in the District of Columbia, New York, Texas, Kansas, Hawaii, Mississippi and elsewhere were squashed by massive corporate lobbying efforts.
I know a good deal about this issue. I wrote “For God, Country and Coca-Cola,” the history of the world’s favorite soft drink, due out in a third edition in May. Invented in 1886 as a cocaine-caffeine-laced sugary “nerve tonic” and soda fountain beverage, Coca-Cola eventually became a symbol of the American way of life, in large part because of ubiquitous advertising. The company quietly removed cocaine from the drink in 1903, although decocainized coca leaf, caffeine and sugar remained.
After the government sued the company in 1911, Coca-Cola stopped showing children under 12 consuming the beverage in ads, but Coke continued to infiltrate schools and to find other ways to attract and addict young consumers. Depression-era ads, for instance, introduced Santa Claus as a Coca-Cola quaffer, and Santa would forevermore be a fat, relentlessly happy man with broad belt and black boots, wearing Coca-Cola red.
In the late 1990s, Coke and Pepsi paid hefty premiums to schools that gave them exclusive rights to place vending machines in the hallways and cafeterias. “This is an investment channel — investing to build brand and consumption preferences for a lifetime,” a Coke spokesman said. But the tide turned against sugary drinks in the new century. After the same lawyers who had successfully mounted class action suits against tobacco companies announced plans to do the same to Coke and Pepsi, the soft drink firms agreed in 2006 to “voluntarily” withdraw sugary drinks from schools.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-Coke or -Pepsi. Nothing tastes better than an ice-cold Coke on a hot summer afternoon, and The Coca-Cola Company is not evil incarnate. It does much good in the world, contributing $125 million a year to charities such as the World Wildlife Fund.
As American consumption of sugary soft drinks has declined, the company has adjusted and diversified, so that over a quarter of its beverages are now low- or no-calorie. The company recently released an ad touting its efforts to combat obesity, such as the exercise programs it sponsors at Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The ad acknowledges that its sugary beverages are part of the problem but points out, “If you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.” It concludes that “the well-being of our families and communities concerns everyone, and finding a solution will take continued effort from all of us.”
Fair enough, but a sugary beverage tax is clearly part of a solution that Coke and Pepsi are fighting tooth and nail through the American Beverage Association, which is pouring untold amounts of money (it doesn’t have to reveal the amount until April, after the Vermont Legislature has voted) into its Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax campaign, just as it did in other states. The devious ads claim to care for the consumer. “There’s no room in Vermont grocery carts for a beverage tax,” they proclaim, asserting that “some prices could go up by almost 50 percent.”
I don’t think that’s true, but it wouldn’t bother me. Studies have repeatedly shown that educating people doesn’t change their bad habits, but hitting them in the pocketbook does. A few years ago, Coke gave money to the Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate front group that originally defended the tobacco industry. The CCF took out full-page newspaper ads lambasting the “food police” and “obesity myths.” This sort of message resonates with many Vermonters. “Come on, this is just another ploy for Montpelier’s ever-growing lust for taking our money!” one writer complained about the proposed Vermont tax. “These people will continue to find ways to drain our pockets under the pretense that they know ‘what’s best for us.’”
But that’s flawed logic, because our pockets and our health are being drained by the obesity epidemic. The real “food police” are the hypocritical corporate giants who manipulate us with their ads, their front groups, and their assumption that we are stupid enough to let them tell Vermonters what is good for them: cheap sugar-laden drinks.
Mark Pendergrast lives in Colchester. He can be reached through his website, www.markpendergrast.com.