Hard to swallow?

December 28, 2007

It's never a bad idea to check out what's going on in California. Whether it's a new plastic surgery procedure or a prohibition on smoking in restaurants, if they're doing it in Los Angeles or San Francisco, chances are good that a few years later, they'll be doing it here.

So soft-drink lovers should note the latest foray into well-intentioned social engineering by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The city by the bay made headlines this year when it moved to ban plastic shopping bags and also banished bottled water from City Hall vending machines. Now Mr. Newsom has proposed a surcharge (the amount has not been announced) on all drinks with high-fructose corn syrup. His argument: Sugary soda contributes to obesity, obesity leads to diabetes and other serious health problems, and the city health care system ends up picking up part of the tab.

We sympathize with Mr. Newsom - up to a point. Consumption taxes are troubling, as they tend to hurt the poor. And with so many factors contributing to Americans' bulging waistlines, soft-drink makers have a right to ask, "Why us?" Studies have shown that lack of exercise is probably even more of a culprit in obesity than poor diet.

Taxing unhealthful food is a road that Maryland has been down. The state's infamous "snack tax" was imposed during a financial emergency in 1992 and repealed four years later. Proposals to reinstate the tax have popped up periodically since then - including during the recent special session of the General Assembly - only to be swatted back each time.

But if a snack tax isn't the answer, what is? Many who stridently defend the right to do exactly as they please - whether riding a motorcycle without a helmet or consuming vast quantities of fatty and sugary foods - also oppose higher taxes to support things such as public health services.

Do people have the "right" to make unhealthful or risky choices that society as a whole ends up paying for? This is a conversation worth having on a society-wide basis. Mr. Newsom has, in an inelegant way, begun that conversation. Picking on soda manufacturers and consumers might not be the best answer, but pretending there's not a problem here is no answer at all.

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