End corn subsidies, and a soda tax won’t be needed to get California back in shape

California Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Dean Florez, has introduced legislation that would tax sodas and sweetened beverages as an assault against the obesity epidemic. Senate Bill 1210 would levy a one cent tax on every teaspoon of sugar or caloric sweetener added to beverages. Revenues will go directly to cities for funding parks, recreation, and obesity prevention programs in public schools throughout the state. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy – sponsors of the bill – project the state could glean $1.5 billion a year from the excise tax on sugary drinks to help reverse a frightening demographic trend.

Senator Florez’s bill comes on the heels of much research indicating the prominent role that consumption of sodas and sweetened beverages have had in contributing to rising obesity rates. “Over the past 30 years, Americans have increased their daily calorie intake by nearly 300 calories, with almost half of that coming from sugar-sweetened beverages,” according to a press release from the Senator’s office. Within this same time span, the childhood obesity rate has tripled.

But its not just the average weight of children that is soaring in this country. There have been dramatic increases in rates of early onset heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, all diseases associated with obesity.

Since Californians have increased their consumption of soft drinks, “rates of diabetes have followed suit,” writes Florez’s press secretary, “with one in 13 people statewide now afflicted with the disease. In the Central Valley, which Florez represents, the Fresno Bee reports that nineteen people die each week from diabetes.” Last year, researchers from the American Heart Association claimed that the U.S. soft drink industry, a $115 billion a year business, is the number one source of added sugars in the American diet.  

The Senator expects bipartisan support for his bill. And why not? The potential savings from reduced healthcare costs to the state is an attractive selling point. According to a study cited by the LA Times, “…Obesity and related problems cost California alone $41 billion a year in medical expenses and reduced productivity.” Nationwide, it is estimated that $147 billion is spent annually on diseases associated with obesity.

The American Beverage Association, representing the interests of industry giants Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola (amongst others), spent tens of millions last year lobbying against a proposed federal tax on sodas meant to fund a healthcare overhaul. Though successful in D.C., the industry faces tougher opposition at the state level. Several California affiliates of national groups who formerly opposed a national tax on sodas have defected from their parent organizations and are considering support of Florez’s legislation. Along with the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the California Medical Association and the Dental Health Foundation will be supporting Senator Florez’s efforts.

Critics label the proposal as a cash grab and claim it is more about raising revenue than achieving its stated goal of improving health. Though the argument that seemingly won the day for industry interests in Washington, that “such a tax would unfairly burden lower income consumers,” might backfire in Sacramento. California has always been the Avant Garde of health-conscious policy by being the first state to outlaw smoking and the use of trans fats in restaurants, mandate menu labeling and the first to ban the sale of sodas in public schools.

In this light, a tax on sodas might not be viewed as an incompassionate act by California voters. After all, a precedent on taxing the consumption of addictive and inherently destructive substances has been set by the heavy state and federal impositions on tobacco products.

“We have a health epidemic in California, and particularly the Central Valley, and the health of our future generations demands we address it,” Florez said. “Diabetes, obesity and heart disease should not be the legacy we leave for our children and theirs.”

I truly admire the spirit of the cause, Senator Florez, but perhaps it’s a policy shift by certain federal agencies that is needed to address the underlying cause of the issue. We should insist that the federal government scale back and eventually stop direct commodity subsidies. It’s common knowledge that the sweet stuff we refer to as “sugar” in the average soda is really a value-added commodity derived from the most widely grown (and most heavily subsidized) crop on the planet, corn. Once the Corn Belt diversifies, disincentives to buy won’t have to come in the form of a tax. When shoppers see the fair market cost of twelve ounces of High Fructose Corn Syrup laden pop, they’ll probably reach for water instead.