The City of Chicago is considering a tax of 15-35¢ on "sugary drinks" with the money going to health promotion programs. While the advocates for such a tax have their heart in the right place, the idea has as many holes as Chicago streets after a long hard winter.
The Chicago City Council holds a committee hearing today on the proposed tax.
Instead of being a tight-ass on this topic, I have decided out of the goodness of my heart to guide these people and those in other cities toward a better policy that can help some of their goals.
-- The obvious problem with the proposed tax hasn't even been brought up yet. The tax would be equal for sugar drinks vs. drinks with high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar isn't supported by federal farm subsidies; high-fructose corn syrup is financially supported by federal farm subsidies. This tax still creates an uneven playing field.
While this may sound like whining against high-fructose corn syrup, the policy is racially insensitive to Mexican products (Mexican Coca-Cola, Jarritos) that are made with sugar.
-- Not that you can compare soda taxes to handgun bans, but having a citywide policy only hurts those without easy access to nearby suburbs. CTA trains go into Evanston, Skokie, and Oak Park and CTA and Pace buses serve many neighboring suburbs. Even without a car, one can score "sugary drinks" without the tax.
-- Those who receive food assistance (SNAP, food stamps) wouldn't be affected by the proposed tax. As to whether soft drinks should be an item worthy of SNAP dollars, I would agree to have that discussion IF we looked at all foods under the program. Not a big fan of starting a slippery slope.
-- Even without SNAP dollars, sales taxes are regressive toward the poor, though interestingly some might see this as an advantage. The poor probably drink more soft drinks than richer classes, but, the carbs/money value issue is a real one among the poor, not as much for those who make more money.
-- While a tax does bring in extra revenue, and tying the tax to health promotion programs makes better financial sense, a lot of what might work is murky at best. How well do the health promotion programs work so far? And in a city that has squandered 75 years of parking fees for $1 billion that the city has spent most of already (72 more years to go), spending money wisely is not something Chicago does well.
Spending national farm subsidies better would make more of an impact on consumption of "sugary drinks" than anything Chicago or other major city might do. And if the tax is regressive, and people get stubborn, then they will spend less money on real food to get their soft drink fix.