You can tell him he doesn’t have the authority to levy soda taxes under New York State law. You can strike down his ridiculous ban on restaurant sodas. But you cannot run from the soon-to-be-ex-Mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg, and his imperial war on soft drinks and just about anything else we enjoy eating.
Under normal circumstances, if all else fails people can escape the invasive arm of the nanny state by moving. It is called “voting with your feet.” Unfortunately for consumers, Bloomberg is worth billions, and he is hellbent on going to the ends of the earth through his “charitable” arm, Bloomberg Philanthropies, to tax and ban sodas into submission in the name of fighting obesity.
Most recently, Bloomberg backed a proposal to tax sodas and a campaign to demonize their consumption in Mexico to the tune of $10 million. Bloomberg Philanthropies says that’s just the start: The campaign is set to be a model for “other low- and middle-income countries” (think Brazil, South Africa, and India). Bloomberg may be term-limited out of New York City, but his personal private scolding will continue — globally.
But before Bloomberg exports more of his money and his bad ideas to more places (including the less fashionable parts of the USA beyond Brooklyn), we should examine whether his plans to tax and ban soda will actually work to reduce obesity. The scientific evidence suggests it won’t because sodas aren’t a particularly large contributor of dietary calories and people find ways to eat and drink untaxed or less costly items.
For all the focus on soft drinks as a supposed cause of obesity, the real cause is consuming more calories than are used in physical activity. So, how many calories do people get from sodas? Government data suggest it isn’t much: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey results collected by the National Institutes of Health show that Americans get just seven percent of their daily caloric intake from these beverages. When Bloomberg and his ilk focus on that sliver (to say nothing of their relative lack of concern about physical inactivity) they err.
And Bloomberg’s category error plays out in the evidence on the ineffectiveness of soft drink taxes. Research funded by another foundation supporting soda taxes found that even at a very high rate — 40 percent — soda taxes reduced calorie consumption by a trivial amount that might lead to weight reductions of (at best) roughly a pound per year. The study gets worse for the anti-soda activists by the lower end of income scale: Despite punitive taxes, the lowest-income fourth of consumers was predicted to lose no weight at all.
Other studies have shown similar results, strongly indicating that soda taxes don’t work. Instead, people sincerely concerned about obesity (not to be confused with billionaires not big enough to keep their bad ideas to a single country) should empower personal responsibility. It’s already working, too: A recent Centers for Disease Control study found that even as our Big Gulps stay legal and free from punitive taxation found that Americans reduced daily calorie consumption from soft drinks by 45 calories. Additionally, soft drink companies have responded to consumer demand for lower-calorie products by adding reduced- and zero-calorie beverages.
And when it comes to his own consumption, Bloomberg trusts himself. The mayor even ladles his former bête noir — salt — onto his pizzas and popcorn. His company, Bloomberg LP, offered free sodas to its employees even after the mayor’s infamous New York City soda ban. For Bloomberg’s own (and Hizzoner himself), personal responsibility is just fine.
As it turns out, personal responsibility provides a much more refreshing option than small-minded meddling, by City Hall or private billionaires. That’s a message worth beaming across the globe.
J. Justin Wilson is the Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.