What is it with New Haven and soda pop? Does the Elm City consume more soda than comparable cities? Is its obesity rate higher? Not as far as I can tell, which makes me think there must be something in the water — or perhaps in the energy drinks sold at the Stop & Shop on Elm Street.
In the last six months, three high-profile politicians have proposed new taxes on sugary drinks, the vast majority of which is consumed as Pepsi, Red Bull or the like. Do they know something the rest of us don’t know?
Back in February, newly elected Mayor Toni Harp proposed a statewide tax on soda. The mayor, who had just arrived at City Hall after 20 years in the state Senate, proposed a tax that would go beyond New Haven’s borders because Connecticut law doesn’t permit municipalities to enact new methods of taxation. Such authority must be granted by lawmakers in Hartford — a long shot.
Perhaps in response, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, another New Havenite, introduced a like-minded bill during this year’s legislative session but it never made it out of committee.
As if on cue, Rep. Rosa DeLauro from — you guessed it — New Haven, revived her proposal to enact a national soda tax that would, in effect, impose a 16-cent tax on a bottle of sugared soda pop and other high-calorie drinks like Gatorade. The proceeds would go toward federal health initiatives. Like the dreaded gross receipts tax on petroleum products in Connecticut, the 16-cent tax would not remain fixed, but would instead rise with the price of the product starting in 2016 when the tax would be indexed to inflation.
Make no mistake about it: there are some compelling reasons to reduce America’s consumption of these nasty drinks. Over the last 40 years, the nation’s obesity rate has risen right along with its consumption of sugary beverages.
But there is also compelling evidence suggesting that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be fat. And most poor people benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
Will poor people who buy soda with food stamps pay DeLauro’s tax or will they be exempt on the grounds that it would be self-defeating for the federal government to tax itself? DeLauro doesn’t say.
My fear is this will be another one of those revenue-raising schemes — like tobacco taxes and the lottery — that are really nothing more than taxes on the poor. Under DeLauro’s proposal, a needy individual buying a 12-ounce Mountain Dew with 47 grams of sugar would be subject to the tax, while a large (16-ounce) Starbucks salted caramel mocha frappacino (66 grams) purchased by a K Street lobbyist would not.
Rather than impose a tax that will disproportionately fall on lower-income people and racial minorities, why not take those same sugary drinks off the list of items that can be purchased with food stamps? One recent study indicated removing soda from the SNAP list would lead to significant drops in obesity and diabetes rates among the poor and prevent at least 141,000 kids from getting fat and another 240,000 adults from developing Type 2 diabetes.
That would send a powerful message that would be far more compelling than a 16-cent tax: if you want to pollute your body with Mountain Dew or Monster, then you must do it on your own dime, not the state’s. After all, we don’t permit SNAP recipients to buy cigarettes or alcohol with food stamps, so why should taxpayers foot the bill for Fanta Orange? The N in SNAP stands for nutrition, which is precisely what DeLauro tells us that soda does not have.
I know. Many advocates for lower-income people argue that such a ban would unfairly stigmatize them and send the message that they’re uniquely unqualified to make good choices about their diets. But by giving them food stamps, aren’t we already doing that? There’s a reason the government enrolls the poor in SNAP rather than just giving them cash and trusting them spend it on food. SNAP exists precisely because we want to help the poor but don’t always trust them to make the right choices.
At this point, the soda tax is basically an academic argument anyway. DeLauro’s bill has about as much of a chance getting through the Republican House of Representatives as a handgun ban.
But I applaud the New Haven Trio for putting their proposals forward. We might disagree about the need for a new tax, but we do need a meaningful conversation about how to handle obesity and its very expensive impact on our healthcare system.