Taxing Addiction

Soft drinks - Kamdora.jpg

The latest cause célèbre in public-health advocacy is "sugary drinks," which are being consumed in ever-larger quantities by North American kids at risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The villain is Big Soda—soft drink behemoths like Coca-Cola and their cronies in the American Beverage Association who have adopted the "time-tested tactics" of Big Tobacco in their "war" on public policy.

On one level, this moral panic is about money—the trillions spent to manage diabetes and heart disease, the promise of lucrative sugary-drink taxes. (A recent study concluded that such a tax would raise almost $2-billion annually in Canada.) On another, it is about extending the power of the state. Sugar is toxic and addictive, according to endocrinology professor Robert Lustig, which puts it in the same league as opioids and alcohol—substances so habit-forming that people cannot decide for themselves whether to imbibe. Given the ubiquity of sugar in processed foods, this seems a stretch.

One good argument against a sugary-drink tax is that it is regressive—meaning that it would, like alcohol taxes and the cost of lottery tickets, impose a disproportionate financial burden on the poor. But the best argument of all is the slippery slope: how long before officials from the Bureau of Addictive Beverages start policing the caffeine habits of middle-class professionals?