The growing ambitions of the food police.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 22 2009 11:23 AM

Then They Came for the Fresca

The growing ambitions of the food police.

A nonalcoholic sequel to the Whiskey Rebellion seems to be brewing. And Slate may be joining it. I'll call it the Fresca Rebellion, in honor of our editor, David Plotz, a hard-core addict of the citrus-flavored soft drink.

For a long time, the only discernible libertarian around here was Jack Shafer, a man unable to wean himself from speech, guns, and other annoying constitutional amendments. But lately, other folks seem to be getting a bit Ayn Randy. On Saturday, Jacob Weisberg blew the whistle on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for trying to ban outdoor smoking in public parks ("First They Came for the Marlboros"). Yesterday, Daniel Engber went after the hypocrisy and overreaching of soda-tax advocates. And I've become such a knee-jerk defender of burgers and fries that I'm tempted to seek funding from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

What's going on here? Most of us used to be good liberals. Are we getting conservative in our old age?

I'd say it's the opposite. We're what we were five or 10 years ago: skeptics and fact-mongers with a bias for personal freedom. It's the left that's turning conservative. Well, not conservative, but pushy. Weisberg put his finger on the underlying trend: "Because Democrats hold power at the moment, they face the greater peril of paternalistic overreaching." Today's morality cops are less interested in your bedroom than your refrigerator. They're more likely to berate you for outdoor smoking than for outdoor necking. It isn't God who hates fags. It's Michael Bloomberg.

In Engber's case, the provocation is scientific. To justify taxes on unhealthy food, the lifestyle regulators are stretching the evidence about obesity and addiction, two subjects on which Engber is burdened with contrary knowledge. Liberals like to talk about a Republican war on science, but it turns out that they're just as willing to bend facts. In wars of piety, science has no friends.

In my case, the provocation is partly scientific and partly libertarian. But mostly, it's a shift in the slippery slope. One of my basic rules is that slippery slopes run both ways. If you've never seen it, go watch that Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, the Robin Hood copycat who keeps stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until he realizes he's now stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. You have to notice when the balance of power and zeal has shifted from one party to the other.

Engber points out that 40 states tax soda or junk food. * And the soda taxers are becoming ever bolder. Their latest manifesto is an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, co-authored by the health commissioner of New York City, the surgeon general of Arkansas, and several others. It declares soda fair game for government intervention on the grounds that "market failures" in this area are causing "less-than-optimal production and consumption."

What exactly are these market failures? First, the authors argue,

because many persons do not fully appreciate the links between consumption of these beverages and health consequences, they make consumption decisions with imperfect information. These decisions are likely to be further distorted by the extensive marketing campaigns that advertise the benefits of consumption.

That's true. Some people don't realize how bad soda is for them. And I trust the soft-drink companies as far as I can throw them. So let's educate people about how much sugar they're drinking and what it's doing to them. But special taxes? To justify that, we'll need more. So let's move on to the authors' next rationale. They write that

consumers do not bear the full costs of their consumption decisions. Because of the contribution of the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, as well as the health consequences that are independent of weight, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages generates excess health care costs. Medical costs for overweight and obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion—or 9.1% of U.S. health care expenditures—with half these costs paid for publicly through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. … Escalating health care costs and the rising burden of diseases related to poor diet create an urgent need for solutions, thus justifying government's right to recoup costs.

If you're trying to sink health care reform, this is a good way to do it: Show everyone how subsidized health insurance will entitle other people to regulate your eating habits. But it's worth noting that the authors base their argument on programs that already exist: Medicare and Medicaid.

I'll leave the socialism question to the rest of you. My real interest is in the authors' third basis for regulation: market failure that

results from time-inconsistent preferences (i.e., decisions that provide short-term gratification but long-term harm). This problem is exacerbated in the case of children and adolescents, who place a higher value on present satisfaction while more heavily discounting future consequences.

Wow. This isn't socialism. It's sheer paternalism. It applies even if you cover every cent of your medical expenses. You buy and drink soda because you want the "short-term gratification." Later, you regret this purchase because of its "long-term harm." This, according to the authors, is a market failure that justifies taxation to alter your behavior, totally apart from its impact on public health costs.

This is what worries me about the crackdown on death sticks and edible crap. There's no end to its ambitions. We'd better start applying some brakes.

If you think I'm overreacting, I call your attention to this paragraph in the NEJM article:

No adverse health effects of noncaloric sweeteners have been consistently demonstrated, but there are concerns that diet beverages may increase calorie consumption by justifying consumption of other caloric foods or by promoting a preference for sweet tastes. At present, we do not propose taxing beverages with noncaloric sweeteners, but we recommend close tracking of studies to determine whether taxing might be justified in the future.

I'm sitting here looking at a can of Fresca. The nutrition label says it has no calories. The ingredients label lists only aspartame as a sweetener. If studies show that drinks like this one indirectly increase calorie consumption "by promoting a preference for sweet tastes," the food police are explicitly prepared to tax them. And the crusade won't end with soda. Anything sweet is a target.

I warn you people now. You can ban the Marlboros, tax the Cokes, and zone the Whoppers. But you'll get Plotz's Fresca when you pry it from his cold, dead hands.

Correction,   Sept. 30, 2009: I originally wrote that according to Engber, 40 states had special taxes on soda or junk food. I misread him. What he actually said was that 40 states taxed these products. The figure is based on a New England Journal of Medicine  article that reported, "Forty states already have small taxes on sugared beverages and snack foods." I was wrong to infer that such taxes, across the 40 states, are specific to these products. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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