Californians' obesity is costing the state an estimated $21 billion a year in health care and other expenses. But Carmel Sen. Bill Monning's proposed solution, a soda tax, has two big, fat problems.
Calories consumed from soft drinks account for less than half of the state's obesity epidemic. It's an easy target, but what about the makers of candy, ice cream, chips and other fattening foods? Why hit soda with a sin tax while others get off scot-free?
That's one reason Monning's bill, SB622, fails the good-government test. But there's a more subtle and arguably more serious flaw. The law might not discourage people from buying soft drinks at all.
Monning's penny-an-ounce tax would be levied on soda distributors, not on consumers at the cash register. The theory is that store owners who buy drinks from distributors would pass the extra cost directly to consumers, but they wouldn't have to. They could just treat it as another cost of doing business and raise prices on everything in the store.
The bill last week was placed on suspense file by the Senate Appropriations Committee, effectively tabling it until next year. We hope by then better ideas for tackling the obesity challenge surface.
Monning had the wrong solution, but he's right about the problem. His legislation highlights some alarming facts about the overconsumption of soft drinks. It would generate $1.7 billion for nutritional education and healthy recreation programs.
A 2009 study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research revealed that the average California teenager consumes 39 pounds of sugar a year just from soda consumption.
Forty-one percent of California children drink one soda a day, an amount that increases a child's chance of obesity by 27 percent. An astounding 13 percent consume three or more soft drinks a day.
A 2012 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that obesity-related health costs in California will increase by more than 15 percent by 2030 if obesity rates continue on their current trajectories.
The state has to rein in those costs, and investing in nutrition education would help. But the problem is federal, too. The government still subsidizes unhealthy food products such as corn syrup.
Fighting obesity is more complex than the fight against smoking. Smoking, even in moderation, kills and increases health care costs, and tobacco taxes directly affect only people using the product. Taxes on soda, fast food or other fatty products -- fettuccine Alfredo anyone? Some creamy bleu cheese dressing on that spinach bacon salad? -- won't be as direct.
We know high taxes on cigarettes reduce smoking. If California wants to tax soda, fast food or other contributors to the obesity epidemic, the Legislature needs to show that it will be both effective and fair. Monning's bill falls short of that standard.