Has the time come to put a tax on soda?
When I do a typical, early-autumn bicycle ride with a small group of buddies from Berks County, the pace is far from breakneck. Which means there's time to ask all sorts of health-and-fitness related questions.
On one such ride, I asked about beet juice, the best workouts for preparing for a time trial, and today's topic, the recently suggested tax on soda. The guy who asked about the soda tax is hooked on the stuff, so I decided to have some fun with him.
"What'd you pay the last time you got gas?"
"If the suggested soda tax becomes law," I said, "that's what you'd pay for any non-diet, two-liter bottle of soda that now sells for $1.79."
"That's ridiculous," he said.
Since our discussion ended there, I want to continue it here. He was right. It certainly is ridiculous when any government considers a tax to protect you from yourself.
Yet it's even more ridiculous that obesity has become such a national health problem that our government feels the needs to. The staggering increase in obesity after flatlining at 25 percent for decades the rate has increased by more than 250 percent in the last three is the cause.
It puts our government in a no-win situation.
Our government is supposed to protect its citizenry from danger, which used to mean hostile foreign countries, greedy businesses and burglary. But the physical danger from obesity is self-induced.
And don't discount the fiscal one fabricated by living in a community of fatties. In 2004, for instance, all taxpayers paid an additional $175 because of the medical complications created by the overweight and obese.
So would a one-cent per one ounce of soda tax really be ridiculous? Before you decide, let me share a movie scene that made quite an impression on me: the segment of Morgan Spurlock's award-winning documentary on the dangers of fast food, "Super Size Me," where the obese guy is going in for bariatric surgery.
As nurses prepare the man, Spurlock interviews him, and the reason for the procedure becomes evident.
The guy admits to drinking between a gallon and a gallon and a half of soda on most days. He also admits that developing diabetes is a direct result of his incessant soda swilling.
In fact, he estimates that he and his wife consume more that 50 two-liter bottles of soda per week.
So what is really more ridiculous? That some in our government feel the need to play Big Brother or that the cost of your health care is affected by behavior like this?
The soda slugger in "Super Size Me" works in a factory. He doesn't appear to be wealthy.
It's likely that paying an extra $32 a week, the proposed tax on 50 bottles of two-liter soda, would have forced him to drink less.
The reduction would have probably kept him from developing diabetes and definitely eliminated his need for major surgery.
My proof of the last statement is simple math. Drinking a quart of soda (still a lot) instead of a gallon and a half means the guy consumes 2400 fewer calories a day. In just 30 days, this change alone creates a 20-pound weight loss.
So maybe it is time for a soda tax. The proceeds, estimated at $14.9 billion in the first year, could help finance health care reform.
But equally as important is the potential savings in medical costs. The United States currently devotes $147 billion a year to the battle of obesity. Millions more are spent by individuals on diet books, dietary supplements, and other items related to weight loss.
And it's not as if we're the only country baby-sitting citizens.
Japan demands that companies and local governments, as part of annual health checkups, measure the waistlines of those between the ages of 40 and 74. A woman's waistline is not to exceed 35.4 inches; a man's can't surpass 33.5.
If it does and the person has what's considered a weight-related ailment, he or she has three more months to get under the number. If unsuccessful, the person receives dieting guidance. If "guidance" doesn't work in a half year, the person gets what a NY Times article euphemistically calls "re-education."
The same article states that the fines, which could be levied on communities and businesses rather than individuals, are rather stiff. The largest maker of personal computers in Japan, NEC, is looking at a potential $19 million penalty if too many workers' waistlines don't meet the guidelines.
The government of Great Britain is just as concerned; it's just they aren't as punitive. They've recruited citizens to wear electronic tracking tags to find out calorie expenditure to determine just how many cals a typical Brit really needs to eat.
Their National Health Service is paying more than 30,000 citizens to attend weight-loss classes. And those who exercise daily, believe it or not, receive store coupons and some even qualify for days off of work.