Opinion Columns & Blogs

Soda tax not really filling

It can't be easy being part of Big Beverage these days.

Barely a week goes by without some do-gooder group — the American Heart Association, for example — linking soda pop and other sweetened drinks to diabetes and every condition short of baldness.

The health reform debate in Washington, D.C., was nerve-racking, with all those nanny-state politicians proposing a tax on sweetened drinks to help people afford insurance.

No sooner did they quiet down when politicians in money-strapped state legislatures from New York to Kansas popped up singing the same song: Tax soda pop. And sports drinks. Even Juicy Juice.

Big Beverage is fighting back, however. With the Kansas Senate still entertaining the idea of levying a penny tax for every teaspoon of sugar added to sodas, juices, teas and sports drinks, the Kansas Beverage Association and its allies have sprung into action.

Busloads of beverage distributor employees got a day off to speak against the proposed tax at a legislative hearing in Topeka. Radio and newspaper ads are cautioning about the effect of such a tax on hardworking Kansans. Speakers for a hastily organized war council, Kansans Against Food and Beverage Taxes, are fanning across the state to make their case.

Big Beverage may be on defense, but it has plenty of talking points to use as ammunition. Some of them are blanks, but that doesn't stop anybody from firing away.

Here are some of the arguments, starting with the preposterous and working up to lucid:

* A tax on sugared beverages is unfair to those families who are just working to "put food on the table for their kids." And to soccer moms.

Let's be real. Soda pop and its sugary cousins are luxuries, not necessities. Nutritionists strongly advise against putting them on the table for kids. As for those soccer moms, juice boxes for after the game are convenient, but tap water and orange slices will work. Seriously, the kids don't care.

* Sodas don't cause obesity; video games cause obesity. Why not tax video games?

Lots of things cause obesity, but many studies have tracked consumption of sugary beverages with obesity, diabetes and related health problems. Soft drinks will continue to be on the most-wanted list of the food police because they have zero nutritional value, and people who consume them don't usually compensate by eating or drinking less.

* Beverage makers have taken the lead in the fight against obesity and shouldn't be penalized for it.

This argument contradicts the above contention that sodas don't make you fat, but never mind. It's true that beverage manufacturers voluntarily removed most sugary drinks from school vending machines. The act was mostly symbolic, however, because school sales account for less than 2 percent of industry sales. Schoolkids need only visit their nearest convenience store or fast food restaurant to get their sugar fix from a cheap, bottomless soda.

* People with a choice would buy their sugary beverage in another state. No one would be healthier, but Kansas businesses would be poorer.

Yep, they might. That's a good point.

* Sweet drinks aren't a "sin" product, like alcohol and cigarettes. Why single them out?

An even better point. As bogus as many of the beverage makers' arguments are, it seems like a cop-out to levy a tax on one type of product. Especially because lawmakers don't intend to use the money for any particular health-related purpose but rather to plug holes in the state budget.

Kansas has made the mistake over the years of exempting nearly twice the amount of sales as it taxes. Ratcheting up the price of sweet drinks won't undo that mistake or solve the state's budget imbalance in the long run. The Legislature must come up with more funding, but the source should be more universal.

As for those sugary drinks, we shouldn't need a tax to get the message: Less is more.