Soda tax is well-meaning but unfair

A Coca-Cola Freestyle machine can dispense more than 100 different flavors of soda.
A Coca-Cola Freestyle machine can dispense more than 100 different flavors of soda. Courtesy of Coca-Cola

State Sen. Bill Monning’s effort to reduce childhood obesity through a penny-an-ounce tax on sodas and other sugary drinks is well-meaning, but ultimately unfair.

Monning, who just completed his first year in the Senate, recently met with The Tribune’s editorial board to discuss his legislative agenda. His proposal to tax soft drinks was one of his signature bills, and though it died in committee, he plans to resurrect it in the next session.

Here’s our concern: Monning is demonizing soda and other sweetened beverages, while essentially ignoring other unhealthy, sugar- and fat-laden foods. As justification, Monning points out that even unhealthy foods have at least some nutritional value, while sodas have none at all. That may be technically true, though we’d be hard pressed to find much nutritional merit in, say, a box of Nerds candies or a pack of Twinkies.

The fact is, there is a host of foods and beverages that are loaded with calories and/or fat while containing little or no nutritional value — potato chips, sugary cereal, candy, cakes and cookies are among them. For the sake of consistency, if we’re going to have an obesity tax on one class of bad-for-you foods, we should target them all.

We also question how the tax revenue — an estimated $1.7 billion per year — would be used. Under Monning’s proposal, the funds would go to a new Children’s Health Promotion Fund to support childhood obesity programs, including nutritional education and recreation. It’s hard to argue with such a good cause, but obesity is not confined to one generation. Earmarking the revenue solely for children’s health programs is too narrow.

We question, too, whether throwing more money at a public education campaign is going to help, when we’re already surrounded by information about the perils of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. While the legislation specifies that revenue be used for “evidence-based” anti-obesity programs, that’s no guarantee of tangible results.

Finally, we’re not convinced that the tax is enough of a financial burden to discourage consumers from buying soda, which is another of Monning’s goals. We’re talking about a 20-cent increase on a 20-ounce soda, but here’s the rub: Because this is an excise tax — meaning the manufacturer pays — retailers won’t necessarily pass the additional cost on to soda buyers. Instead of just increasing the price of sugary beverages, they could opt to raise prices overall. That means all shoppers — including those who never buy a single can of soda — could be paying more on account of the tax.

Obesity is a huge problem in California, and we commend Monning for attempting to do something about it. However, we believe his soda tax is intrinsically unfair and could wind up pouring billions into programs that may have little or no effect.

We urge Monning to drop the proposal. Arbitrarily slapping a penny-an-ounce tax on drinks first and deciding how to spend it later is a poor use of consumers’ dollars.