In order to cover the exorbitant cost of President Obama’s universal health care program, the Senate Finance Committee has proposed, among other things, that the government levy additional taxes on alcohol, soda, and other sugar-sweetened beverage.
The committee members and their supporters in the health community like the idea because it will raise some of the necessary funds and also discourage consumption of high-calorie beverages like soda and sports drinks. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for example, approves of the tax because “[s]oda is clearly one of the most harmful products in the food supply, and it’s something government should discourage the consumption of.” Jacobson has also argued that the tax will “compensate society for the costs” of treating medical conditions which result from soda and alcohol consumption.
The argument has a veneer of plausibility. After all, if people who consume excessive amounts of sugary soda or alcohol impose additional costs on the public they should have to pay up.
Unfortunately for the health nannies, their assertion is entirely at odds with the facts. Preventative health care measures—such as taxes to discourage consumption—actually increase health care costs to the government. Pacific Research Institute President Sally Pipes explains that “healthier people live longer — and thus consume more health care in their extra years of life. Individuals who live into old age require some of the most expensive health care around: late-life care. As people age, they become more susceptible to illnesses like osteoarthritis, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Treating illnesses like these in the final years of a person’s life is incredibly expensive.”
Even if we assume that it’s the government’s responsibility to pay the health care expenses associated with unhealthy behaviors like soda and alcohol consumption, these behaviors don’t drive up health care costs, and therefore the only real justification for levying additional taxes on them is no justification at all.
How do the “Neo-Puritans” who want to tell you what you can put in your body respond to such damning evidence? They ignore it, and suggest that you do the same. For example, when confronted with the data proving that smokers—like soda drinkers—burden the system less than their healthier counterparts, MIT Professor Jeffrey Harris said that “this is not the kind of calculation that a civilized society engages in.” Funny, the same calculation wasn’t uncivilized when the results were favorable to a higher cigarette tax. The snobbery would be funny if it weren’t so insulting
More important, however, is the initial assumption that makes this debate possible. Is it really the government’s responsibility to regulate our consumption habits and pay the costs associated with our personal decisions? Despite what the food police may say, the answer is no on both counts. The Constitution grants Congress 18 specific, limited powers and none of them includes the authority to influence behavior with taxation.
If the Senate continues to push for a beverage tax as a means to pay for Obama’s health care scheme, we should inform them that their chances of re-election are bleak. If politicians respond to anything, they respond to the possibility of being thrown out of office. Let’s use that to prevent any further encroachment on our liberties.