Up until very recently, “obesity tax” was something that was used jokingly to describe the price difference between XL and 2XL shirts. Now, as New York is pummeled by the crumbling economy, the state is forced to find obscure sources of revenue. Obesity tax may no longer be just a joke; it could be a reality in the near future.
Despite its name, the obesity tax is not based on a person’s body mass index. Instead, the tax represents a 15 percent charge on all non-diet sodas. The implication is that it will help mediate the obvious health problem in America. At face value, this tax seems to be in line with other “sin” taxes, such as those placed on tobacco and alcohol. The legislation aims to encourage people to buy “healthier” products in an effort to reduce obesity levels in the state. However, the question must be asked: Do diet sodas actually help people lose weight?
According to a 2005 study conducted at the University of Texas Health Science Center, people increase their risk of obesity by 41 percent for every can of diet soda they have per day. While there is no direct connection between diet soda and weight gain, there is equally no connection between it and weight loss. In actuality, there is more evidence to suggest that drinking any soda will lead to unhealthy eating habits. However, this might not be the only health problem associated with diet sodas.
The history of artificial sweeteners has been rough at best. Sweeteners like cyclamate and saccharin have been linked to cancer, and have been banned in several countries. Research conducted on the carcinogenic nature of aspartame, the sweetener found in most diet sodas, has produced varied results, but there is some evidence to suggest that it may also cause cancer. One such study, published in 2005 by researchers at the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center, concludes that aspartame “is a multipotential carcinogenic compound.”
However, the true motivation behind this tax is not health-related. In fact, there is not a single mention of such a tax in the state’s strategic plan to combat obesity. What is on the state’s books, though, is a $15 billion budget deficit.
The tax is part of a larger state-wide initiative to pay off that deficit. While the rest of the plan seems to be a sound financial move, such as cutting back spending and limiting automatic raises, the obesity tax can be seen as a sign of desperation. Forgoing any hard evidence that diet soda produces weight loss, New York State has instead decided to work on the assumption that it does. This assumption has the potential of creating more health problems than it aims to avoid, as the government is effectively endorsing diet soda.
The opinions expressed in the Views section are solely those of the author.
David Spiecker: Tax helps consumers make healthier choices.