Sugar taxes are not about health.
They are about taxes.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Northern California where Richmond has placed a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot to impose a penny per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks sold by merchants.
First, it is cleverly disguised as a stealth tax. That means the consumer's receipt will never show they are paying the tax. Instead, the Richmond City Council has placed wording on the ballot that structures the levy as a business license fee on merchants and not a tax on each drink per se that is sold. So it leaves it up to the merchant to pass on the tax. If they did, the price of a two-liter of Pepsi now being sold for $2.19 would increase to $2.87.
Backers say it is a tax against fat. Yet, there is no language tying how the revenue collected - estimated at $3 million annually - must be spent.
Some have urged that the money go to fund more vegetables and fruit in schools, teach kids how to swim, and to fund more athletic fields in Richmond. But since it is structured as a general tax and not a tax tied specifically into combating obesity, the elected leaders could use the money to fund pension shortfalls for their municipal employees without doing a thing to enhance nutrition or fitness opportunities for kids.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the per capita consumption of carbonated sweetened drinks - the primary target of the sugar taxes - has dropped from 610 eight-ounce servings annually to 506 in 2011.
The Health Policy Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a study showing 30 states already have a sales tax averaging 5 percent on the purchase of sweetened drink that is in the form of an indirect general sales tax imposed on retail transactions. Yet they concluded the tax hasn't reduced the consumption of such drinks significant enough to call them effective in terms of reducing obesity. Supporters of sugar taxes to social engineer consumption patterns via financial penalties argue the tax is simply too low to do any good. Some suggest a 20 percent tax or higher.
But that is where the rub comes in.
Is a sugar tax the most effective way to curb obesity?
No one can debate that sugary drinks are essentially empty calories with little or no nutritional or health advantages.
Even though on average 7 percent of all calories consumed in the country come from sugar sweetened drinks, are they indeed the worst culprit? A 12-ounce Pepsi has 150 calories and no calories from fat. A Big Mac without cheese has 550 calories with 260 calories from fat.
Studies released last week that show childhood obesity rates are starting to drop.
The researchers looked over rates for the past three years and found that states that had greatly restricted access to junk food and soda on school campuses and pushed more nutritious school lunches had a typical 5-foot-2 student weighing 2.2 pounds less than those in states that didn't have a similar effort.
The researchers cautioned that wasn't enough evidence to absolutely say with certainty the efforts worked but it does reflect a start. A number of nutritionists chimed in agreeing it was a positive trend but several made the astute observation that a wide array of factors impact obesity and that they are different from individual to individual.
Given the uncertainty and the trend the researchers detected, why not go all the way? Go ahead and impose the sugar tax but require ever penny collected go to better nutrition in school lunch programs as well as other endeavors that directly address obesity in young people whether it is nutrition or fitness.
Prohibit even one penny collected from being used for other purposes.
There is a reason no one pushing the sugar taxes have restricted their proposals in such a legally binding manner.
It is all about more tax revenue to sweeten government's bottom line.
Perhaps more people could embrace a sugar tax if they knew it wasn't going to contribute to the growing problem of grotesque government bloating that is causing all sorts of financial ailments for Americans and threatens to shorten the life of the republic.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.