Tax sweet sodas, subsidize salads, one man’s dream


July 25, 2011 - 12:00 AM

While the president, House speaker and other Washington hangers-on worry about the debt ceiling and how to avoid fiscal catastrophe, Mark Bittman has his attention focused on a revolutionary way to save the world — or the world as he sees it, which is how the American people eat.
Bittman, who writes about food, wants to tax bad food and subsidize vegetables.
Unlike some politicians we know, Bittman doesn’t hesitate to be specific.
Sweetened drinks, he says, could be taxed at two cents an ounce, “so a six-pack of Pepsi would cost $1.44 more than it does now. An equivalent tax on fries might be 50 cents a serving; a quarter extra for a doughnut. Diet sodas would not be taxed.
Bittman, who obviously doesn’t plan to run for public office, would tax bad food high enough to generate “billions of dollars annually” and use the money to subsidize vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes — beans, to you — seasonal greens and fruit.
He gets excited at the thought. “We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound, and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas (bars), supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community stores,” he rhapsodizes.
Then Mr. Bittman comes back down to earth. His taxes and his subsidies would, he concedes, “upset the processed food industry,” not to mention those who might resent paying more for soda and chips and argue that their right to eat whatever they wanted was being breached.
“But,” he says, getting evangelical again, “public health is the role of government and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water purity to mass transit.”
He also thinks his plan would be good for the poor because they buy a lot of soda and junk food and taxing those would lead them to buy better food. It would be a boon to the poor because “poor people suffer disproportionately from the cost of high-quality fresh foods. Subsidizing those foods would be particularly beneficial to them. Right now it’s harder for many people to buy fruit than Froot Loops; chips and Coke are a common breakfast. And since the rate of diabetes continues to soar — one-third of all Americans either have diabetes or are pre-diabetic — and because our health care bills are on the verge of becoming truly insurmountable, this is urgent for economic sanity as well as national health.”
Bittman is serious.
He points out that at least 30 cities and states have considered taxes on soda or all sugar-sweetened beverages, and they’re a logical target: of the 278 additional calories Americans on average consumed per day between 1977 and 2001, more than 40 percent came from soda “fruit” drinks, mixes like Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, and beverages like Red Bull, Gatorade and dubious offerings like Vitamin Water, which contains half as much sugar as Coke.

RESEARCH SHOWS that taxes on beverage items begin to have an effect at 1 cent an ounce. At that point, Bittman predicts, consumption would fall, health outcomes would improve, public health costs would fall and the world would begin to be a better place, all around.
He’s probably right. But, to go back to the beginning, Congress won’t even talk about raising taxes to lower the debt or raising the debt ceiling to save the world economy from fiscal disaster. Bittman’s tax on sugared drinks would save the country only from an increase in diabetes and maybe a paltry million early deaths, or so — penny ante stuff.
Sorry, Mark, but no brass ring on today’s Washington merry-go-round.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.

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