- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Big Brother is looking for a place at the family dinner table. And some of the other diners think he’s crashing the party.

State and local governments across the nation are increasingly using the government’s power to battle rising obesity rates by taxing sugar-sweetened drinks, changing food labeling and promoting exercise.

And folks are starting to push back.

“Government is getting too big and too involved in our lives,” said American Beverage Association (ABA) spokesman Chris Gindlesperger, whose group’s products are being targeted by some of the latest initiatives.

Last May, D.C. lawmakers approved a measure that would add sports drinks, soda and other sweetened beverages to the list of food items subject to the city’s 6 percent sales tax. The money from the D.C. tax would be used to fund physical education programs in local schools. A similar bill was passed in Colorado in February.

Americans Against Food Taxes (AAFT) has begun ad campaigns in Washington and elsewhere nationwide featuring moms at grocery stores saying, “I can decide what to buy without government help. The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives.” One radio ad also makes it political, though not personal — saying voters need to send Congress a message, but giving no names of anyone on any ballot.

The food fight has indeed gone national, though the results have been mixed.

• In Philadelphia, restaurants are now required to display nutritional information on menus, and Mayor Michael Nutter proposed a soft-drink tax, but the Philadelphia City Council decided not to consider it for a vote.

• In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom instituted a citywide policy that removed Coke, Pepsi and Fanta Orange from all vending machines on city property, but allowed the diet versions of the drinks to stay.

• In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently sent a request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban sugared drinks from being purchased in the city with food stamps. Mr. Bloomberg also was an early pioneer both of mandating nutritional information on menus and using city government’s power to ban restaurant use of trans fats.

• A nationwide excise tax on sugared beverages was also considered by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year to help fund the health care bill, but was quickly shelved.

• A southwestern Ohio high school has installed an all-carrot vending machine on the premises, with the cooperation of a farmers group that wishes to turn baby carrots into the latest “junk food” craze.

And activist groups want more.

A report published Wednesday by the Institute of Medicine and sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls for food packaging to highlight calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium, rather than the current contents — information on vitamin, cholesterol and fiber.

“These food components are routinely overconsumed and associated most strongly with diet-related health problems affecting many Americans, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer,” the group said in a statement.

First lady Michelle Obama has made battling obesity one of her signature causes, spearheading a federal program called “Let’s Move” that encourages parents to cook healthier meals and schools to serve healthier lunches. The program is also trying to increase access to “healthy, affordable food” and encourage physical activity in children.

“Let’s Move” also has encouraged soda companies to provide clearer labeling of calorie content on their cans and bottles, a program on which the ABA has cooperated with its “Clear on Calories” initiative.

However, the beverage group has joined AAFT, whose ads run regularly in magazines and on TV and radio, in vigorously campaigning against food taxes, saying that “we don’t want government telling us what to eat or drink by taxing our food and beverages.”

Mr. Gindlesperger also doubts the efficacy of soda and junk food taxes and says it’s all about the government getting into people’s wallets rather than fridges.

“People understand that these tax proposals … are pure money grabs,” Mr. Gindlesperger said. “It’s a slippery slope, and people all across the country are fed up with it.”

The AAFT’s website states: “Taxes do not teach a healthy lifestyle, and have no meaningful impact on public health … . Education, not taxation, is the key to reducing obesity and improving public health.”

For example, the Arkansas soda tax collects for the state more than $40 million a year, yet Arkansans have the eighth-highest obesity rate in the nation, according to 2009 CDC data.

The AAFT has nearly 88,000 members and is sponsored by more than 450 corporations, which run the gamut from McDonald’s to aluminum giant Alcoa.

The proponents of such legislation argue that not only would it help lower obesity rates, but also it would help states whose budgets are in trouble by increasing tax revenue and lowering the tax burden that obesity causes.

A report produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which favors such laws, states that “imposing taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages would yield billions of dollars and counter the alarming risks of obesity, poor nutrition, and displacement of more healthful foods and beverages.”

The report also states that “levying special taxes on soda pop and other sugar-sweetened beverages would trim budget deficits and state health care costs, while also shrinking the waistlines of teens and others who gorge on unhealthy drinks.”

The CSPI did not return calls for comment.

Some proponents of taxing the nation’s way to healthiness are unabashed about how high they want the taxes to go.

Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the man credited with originating the soda-tax idea, told the Associated Press last April that such levies should go as high as 12 percent — or 18 cents on a 2-liter bottle at a typical price of $1.50.

“Taxes have to be large enough to affect consumption,” he said.

Besides “nanny state” concerns about state power, using taxation to affect the nation’s diet also has been attacked as hitting the poor disproportionately.

A report published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University argues that taxes on junk food and other “sin taxes” are “regressive” and “hardly ever work as intended.”

Bill Ahern, spokesman for the Tax Foundation, said that preventative taxes “don’t work on tobacco,” and noted that poor smokers “actually consume more cigarettes than higher-income people.”

But the CSPI argues that this regressiveness is actually a good thing, because it also means the poor will disproportionately get the benefits of drinking less soda.

“Lower-income adults drink more soft drinks than higher-income adults, and thus would be affected disproportionately by a soft-drink tax.

But they also would be helped disproportionately by the programs funded by the taxes (and, of course, by the health benefits from drinking less soda),” the center said on its site.

Richard Williams, director for policy research at the Mercatus Center, also noted that food taxes work at cross-purposes — that is, they only raise revenue if they don’t reduce consumption.

“You’re either going to raise money, or you’re going to solve the problem” of junk-food consumption, he said, adding that if people stop drinking taxed soda, they will switch to untaxed fruit juices, which he said has more calories per ounce than soda.

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