My son had a class in high school today about alcohol, something we never had when I was growing up. Back then, you learned about drinking in a bar, or behind the gym with some kids who snuck out of the school dance and shared a can of warm beer. He told me the teachers (including some medical students from Davis) explained how alcohol affects the body, and the students learned about alcohol poisoning deaths and drunk driving fatalities and a lot of other stuff that 14-year-olds ought to know about. A lot of it, of course, is alarming.
Meanwhile, I was at City Hall listening to a hearing on the health impacts of sugary beverages, and when my son and I compared notes, we realized that both types of drinking are serious public-health hazards. Except that one form is perfectly legal for teens, and is encouraged by more than $1 million a day in marketing and advertising, much of it aimed at young people.
Supervisors Eric Mar and Scott Wiener want to put a tax on soda. The public health studies and economic analysis pretty clearly demonstrate that a 2-cents-an-ounce tax would significantly reduce consumption. In fact, Dr. Laura Schmidt, a health policy professor at UCSF, noted that the United Nations and the World Health Organization have both found that “taxation is one of the most effective means” of getting people to cut down on the nasty stuff.
And it IS nasty. Schmidt and several other experts explained that fructose – the main ingredient in most sodas these days – is absorbed directly into the bloodstream very quickly, and goes right to the liver, where is turned into fat. The amount of this sweetener included in most soda is actually toxic to the liver, she said, noting that the fastest-growing type of liver disease treated at UCSF is now “fatty liver disease not related to alcohol.” That is, people getting really, really sick from high-fructose drinks is almost as bad as people getting sick from alcoholism – and growing faster.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, drinking ONE 12-ounce soda a day increases your risk of heart disease by more than one third.
Now: I’m good with adults doing whatever they want to themselves, and I’m in favor of ending the drug war and would never want to outlaw anything just because it has health impacts. I don’t drink soda but I put mayo on my turkey sandwich and I like bacon and hamburgers and pasta with sausage, and you’ll get the mayo away from me when you pry it off my cold dead hands.
But a lot of the marketing is aimed at kids, and kids are the ones who buy a lot of this crap, and Dr. Jeff Ritterman, a Richmond City Council member who tried to pass a similar tax there, told the hearing that “a child doesn’t decide to get fat.” Kids eat what adults allow them to and encourage them to.
And over at 7-Eleven, Sup. Wiener pointed out, there’s something called a “Teen Gulp,” aimed (of course) at teens. I contains 128 ounces of sugary soda – “that’s like sitting down and eating more than 100 spoonfulls of sugar, something most of us would find repulsive,” he said.
“The facts and science,” Wiener noted, “are on the side of a sugary beverage tax.”
Ah, but that didn’t make much difference when this went on the ballot in Richmond. The American Beverage Association spent millions to defeat Measure N, and it went down. Way down.
The argument – and it’s an effective one: Taxes on soda are highly regressive, since they are paid overwhelmingly by lower-income people.
I get that. Sales taxes in general are regressive, and this one is especially so. That may be why voters in Richmond overwhelmingly rejected the idea. But if the American Beverage Association was really worried about poverty and food deserts and poor nutrition and high obesity and diabetes rates among poor people and communities of color, the powerful lobbying group could work a little on those issues. Tobacco companies that called cigarette taxes regressive weren’t really thinking of the good of their customers.
It’s going to be an interesting discussion, and if it’s done right, we can talk about why there’s not enough fresh food in some parts of town, and why diabetes rates are higher in low-income neighborhoods, and who really will benefit and lose from a tax that would by all accounts reduce sales of the foul fluids, which serve no valuable social purpose at all. (At least there are some positive health and social benefits to alcohol.)
And it looks like this will probably wind up on the 2014 ballot.