Why I Support the Philadelphia Soda Tax

Lately there’s been a lot of discussion about the Philadelphia Soda Tax. Basically, the City of Philadelphia has decided to tax all beverages that contain sugar (high fructose corn syrup). This affects a whole lot of beverages.

According to Philadelphians Against the Grocery Tax, it will mostly impact small businesses and people who are economically disadvantaged:

This regressive tax stands to hurt Philadelphia’s lower-income families and small businesses the most, burdening them with higher costs even though they are still struggling to emerge from the recession. It could also hurt retailers and restaurants, which are likely to lose sales and customers. It’s a slippery slope – this discriminatory tax is singling out beverages. Which grocery items are next?

So why would I support this, especially as a conservative? Shouldn’t I be supporting everyone’s right to do what they want, and oppose any taxation to regulate one’s freedom of choice?

It’s more complicated than you think, and the problem in the first place was actually created by the federal government…

The Big Question: Why is soda so darn cheap?

The answer to that question is complicated. The answer can be found in public policy starting around the Depression Era, and then ramping up in the 1990s, to what we have in the present day.

Since the founding of our country, farmers were subject to the free enterprise system. This meant farmers grew their crops and then sold them at market value. Historically, the government refused to get involved with the agricultural free market.

During the Great Depression, the United States government decided to intervene in agriculture. At first, the government under President Hoover decided to “insure” farms by buying up any unused wheat or cotton. This lead to a significant overproduction of wheat and cotton, which the government then ended up having to sell at a loss. After, President Roosevelt’s administration paid farmers not to grow, in order to increase the value of certain crops.

After some tinkering around with the programs, the government decided to pay money for production of corn, rather than let farmers sell it for market value. The result was that there is a lot of corn in the United States, particularly in Iowa, and also dramatically reduced the price of corn.

The upside of this is that food became generally readily and cheaply available. The United States hasn’t had to worry about famines or bad harvests because of the food surpluses created by subsidized corn.

However, in about 1965, scientists figured out how to stabilize high fructose corn syrup, and produce it in mass amounts. This development, combined with the very low cost of corn, created the worldwide sugar industry. Agribusiness began to lobby the government for increased farm subsidies, which were at one time only meant to be a temporary fix to Great Depression food shortgages.

In 1980, the government introduced crop insurance subsidies of substance that began to change the ways in which farmers manage risk, and to discourage diversification. In other words, farmers were encouraged to grow more corn and soy. As of today, of the 300-million-plus acres planted with food in this country, half are corn and soy. Because of how cheap and profitable high fructose corn syrup products are, Coca-Cola and Pepsi began using it in their products around 1984. From 1970 to 2000, there was a 25% increase in “added sugars” in America.

This also lead to the implementation of large factory farms, which is a topic for another day. However, with the increase in corn, it was now possible to create factory farms that could hold hundreds and even thousands of animals, to ensure that every person in America could eat a Baconator at 4am.

Flickr-factory-farm-Ardarve

Prior to the development of the worldwide sugar industry, dietary fructose was limited to only a few items. Milk, meats, and most vegetables, the staples of many early diets, have no fructose, and only 5–10% fructose by weight is found in fruits such as grapes, apples, and blueberries. Molasses and common dried fruits have a content of less than 10% fructose sugar.

Corn, converted into corn starch and high fructose corn syrup, combined with either soy or wheat, can be used to create a variety of foods such as Poptarts, Wheaties, Cheerios, soda, candy bars, sandwich bread, you name it. These foods are cheap to produce, easy to prepare, and they taste good. These products also are extremely profitable, due to the low cost of government subsidized corn.

As a society, we now consume so much corn that it’s what our bodies are made of:

And that my friends is why soda is so cheap and available, and can be found in every gas station in America.

Why Are People Getting So Fat? 

The common answer to that because people today are lazy and gluttonous and don’t have the willpower to keep their greasy hands of burgers, french fries, and a 40 ounce Big Gulp. The reality is that much of it is due to failed governmental public policy.

Around the same time society started consuming more high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, the government began to notice higher instances of heart attack, stroke, and cancer. As a result, it commissioned the Ancel Keys 7 Countries study.

Keys noted that Asian countries had lower instances of heart attack and stroke, and that they also consumed less saturated fat. He theorized that saturated fat elevated cholesterol levels, which then hardened at room temperature, causing arteries to clog. This is called the “Lipid Hypothesis.” The Lipid Hypothesis and Key’s study is entirely based on flawed data:

Nevertheless, this lead America as a matter of policy to adopt a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. Eggs, steak, and bacon were suddenly unhealthy, while a bagel topped with margarine became a health food. This is a food pyramid from the 1990s, which suggests that the average American should be eating mostly carbohydrates.

92 food pyramid

In other words, the answer to our sudden health crisis was to consume more corn, and more high fructose corn syrup.

However, it turns out that the real problem was actually sugar. Namely, the worldwide sugar industry was actually causing the health issues, and propelled by a government promoting a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. Unbelievably, the government now telling citizens to eat more sugar.

The common myth is that people in modern times are just lazy and gluttonous, and they’d rather just sit around playing Playstation and munching on Doritos. Interestingly, high carbohydrate / high sugar diets actually make you feel hungrier, while at the same time making you fatter:

Who wants to sit on their couch and pound 20 hard boiled eggs?

We’ve also justified this with the myth that a person should eat 6 meals a day instead of two or three, which isn’t true. Boiled down, the government has created a situation where the food you eat makes you hungrier and what’s available and economic isn’t good for you.

In addition, there is big money in selling cholesterol lowering, medication such as statins. The current value of the cholesterol-lowering drug industry is estimated at around $29 billion — and this is clearly a conservative estimate considering spending on cholesterol drugs in the United States alone reached nearly $19 billion in 2010.

If you’ve ever wondered why the government isn’t all that interested in rolling back farm subsidies, now you know. It’s big business for a lot of people.

What does this have to do with the Soda Tax?

Here is the problem. The price of soda, along with most other unhealthy foods, is artificially cheap due to government subsidies which benefit large agribusiness, and drug companies. The federal government has created an economy where foods that are killing our citizens are more available than fresh vegetables, humanely raised meats, and foods that are nutritious are too expensive for your average consumer.

Although not it’s intent, the Soda Tax actually remedies a problem created in the first place by the federal government – making soda too cheap and available.

I hope the money derived from the soda tax goes into funding our school system. However, if it raises the price on soda forcing people to drink beverages like coffee, water, and unflavored tea, that’s fine too.

What do I suggest? The federal government should either stay out of agriculture entirely, or start to subsidize local CSA’s like Greensgrow, Weaver’s Way, and Philly Cow Share. We should be spending money teaching lower income families how to cook, and encouraging those on the SNAP Program to shop at local farmer’s markets. It wouldn’t be such an outrageous proposition to start connecting individual people to the land again.

Everyone in America should have access to nutritious foods, and not be relegated to survive on soda and hot pockets because they’re cheap. Those opposing the Soda Tax seem to believe otherwise.

3 Responses to Why I Support the Philadelphia Soda Tax

  1. Michael says:

    So your answer is to have government programs at both ends: a corn subsidy at the production end and a soda tax at the consumption end. I wonder if there’s a simpler plan? Getting rid of both, for example?

    • I’d rather get rid of the corn / wheat / soy subsidy entirely, and instead let the agricultural market sort itself out. Without government subsidies, soda and junk food wouldn’t be nearly as available. That would be ideal. A soda tax would be unnecessary.

      Since that’s not going to happen, a counter-tax on soda isn’t actually a bad thing. At the very least, it’s better than cheap and readily available everywhere.

  2. […] via Why I Support the Philadelphia Soda Tax | Philly Law Blog […]

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