We tried to ban alcohol once. Once.
Long story short, Prohibition didn’t work. It didn’t quash demand. It only drove supply underground into an unregulated market. Lawlessness ensued. Enforcement costs rose. Tax revenues declined.
Bans are economic losers while at the same time largely ineffective at changing individual behavior.
So why do certain groups continue to believe that this time, their ban is somehow more righteous and will therefore defy all odds and succeed where others have failed?
New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on sodas over 16 ounces is laughable. Hasn’t he ever heard of a drink carrier? If someone can’t buy one cup with 64 ounces of soda, what’s stopping that person from buying four separate 16-ounce cups? Or a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans? I guess Bloomberg didn’t quite think that all the way through…
I will be the first person to agree that America’s obesity epidemic and consequent rise in metabolic syndrome is directly correlated with excessive ingestion of fructose. As a nation, we’ve become unhealthy because we consume – knowingly or unknowingly – too much sugar.
But is the Big Gulp really the culprit?
If we banned the Big Gulp, would people drink less soda and instantly become healthier? Or would they just find a clever way around the restriction and continue consuming a comparable amount?
The logic behind the ban seems to be that convenient access to soda is the underlying problem. If it’s too difficult to purchase a large portion, the inconvenience of the procurement process will outweigh the physical desire for the beverage. People will give up drinking sugary drinks out of pure laziness.
As the Prohibition Era demonstrated, even clandestine acquisition with very serious criminal consequences wasn’t a strong enough deterrent to quell an individual’s desire to drink alcohol. Filling multiple cups and placing them in a drink carrier is hardly the high risk equivalent to knocking on the door of a speak-easy…
Bloomberg’s ban does nothing to address the issue of why people desire soda in the first place.
The answer to the desire issue is really quite simple. Sugar sends “happy” signals to the brain while shutting off the signal that says “better stop, you’re full.” As far as your brain is concerned, you can eat that Big Mac and gigantic order of fries – your super-sized soda isn’t what’s filling you up.
But all those sugary, liquid calories have to go somewhere.
Some calories get used for energy while most get stored as body fat for later use. Unfortunately, there’s such little need to recall that fat for energy that it just stays there contributing to a host of medical issues.
Metabolizing fructose wreaks havoc on your body. It causes blood sugar to spike, interfering with your insulin response (diabetes). Excess fructose is converted to triglycerides which contribute to arterial inflammation and plaque build-up (heart attack / stroke) as they travel through the bloodstream. Excess body fat impacts the functioning of organs and stresses joints. These are all known medical consequences of excess sugar consumption.
Is banning sodas over 16 ounces the right tactic to create awareness of the health hazards of excessive sugar consumption?
For a better, more recent example, let’s look at how policymakers dealt with the public health hazard of smoking. While NYC and other cities and states have recently banned the activity of smoking in public places, there has never been a ban on cigarettes (or a successful attempt to curtail the portion size).
Restricting cigarette advertising and publicizing the hazards of smoking were the tactics chosen to discourage Americans from smoking. While this combination didn’t cause all smokers to quit or prevent future generations from taking up smoking, the result was somewhat effective.
Adding taxes to tobacco products likewise discouraged some Americans from smoking, yet it failed to eliminate the demand for cigarettes. Policymakers eventually came to the realization that government can't protect people from themselves.
If government can’t discourage unhealthy activities through education and taxation, at least it can hold individuals partially accountable for the cost of their eventual treatment.
In other words, tax substance users extra for unhealthy behaviors that taxpayers will be required to pay for.
Today, we are all paying more for the treatment of metabolic syndrome which is linked to excess sugar consumption. Taxpayer costs will only continue to grow along with our nation's addiction to cheap, unhealthy food.
We don’t need to ban Big Gulps, we need to tax high fructose corn syrup.
Taxing of HFCS and other sweeteners should not be at the consumer level, either. Our government needs to tax every food processor for every ounce of HFCS they purchase. Ironically, we have a tariff on sugar, but we also have a subsidy for corn. HFCS is so cheap to add as a sweetener it has not only replaced the more expensive cane sugar, it has become an added ingredient to products that were never sweetened in the past. Salty snacks and low-sodium, low-fat "healthy" meals contain HFCS for their taste sweetening and satiety suppressing qualities.
If production costs were to double because of a tax on sweeteners, producers would have to cut back on sweetness, increase prices, or lower profits (or some combination of the three). Consumers would then be free to vote with their wallets and determine how much added sugar they really need on a daily basis.
As a consequence of a tax at the source of added sweeteners, some foods would go back to being sweetened with real sugar. Both sugar and HFCS would be used more sparingly and eventually our taste buds would appreciate naturally sweetened substances like whole fruit (which is beneficial because of its natural fiber content).
Healthier foods would also become more competitively priced in comparison. It would be a lot easier to choose between soda, fruit juice (which should also be taxed for its natural high fructose content), and water. It would also be easier to choose between a prepackaged “healthy” meal high in HFCS and the individual natural ingredients required to make your own healthy meal.
Banning large sodas – while well intentioned – is wrong on so many levels. If people want to consume nutrient-deficient carbohydrates because they like the taste and how it makes them feel, let them make that choice and pay for it accordingly.
The solution is very simple: Tell people how harmful excessive sugar consumption is. Raise the price to cover the healthcare costs. Make healthier choices more competitive through a level playing field. Let everyone choose based on his or her own desires and the ability to pay the real cost for the item chosen.
When a Big Gulp costs the same as a gallon of milk, people will get the idea that they probably shouldn't be drinking so much soda...
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