Junk Science 
Friday, Dec 26, 2008
New York Governor David Paterson has proposed to levy an 18 percent tax on non-diet soft drinks under the guise of combating obesity. Government doesn’t get much more cynical than this.
After alleging that “almost one in four New Yorkers under age 18 are obese,” Paterson’s budget proposal for 2009-2010 asserts that, “Significant price increases should discourage individuals, especially children and teenagers, from consumption and help fight obesity which results in higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.” So the purpose of the tax, according to proposal, is to discourage people from drinking non-diet soft drinks.
The proposal then estimates that the tax will raise $404 million during 2009-2010 and — get this — $539 million during 2010-2011. Since tax revenues from non-diet soft drink sales are budgeted to increase rather than decrease — as one might expect from the alleged purpose of the tax — Paterson actually seems to be counting on the tax not working. Combating obesity is not grounds for the tax; it is, instead, camouflage for it — and not very good camouflage at that.
In his Dec. 18 New York Times paean to the tax, columnist Nicholas Kristof ominously intoned that, “The average American consumes about 35 gallons of non-diet soda each year and gets more added sugar from soda than from desserts.”
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But that 35 gallons works out to about a can of non-diet soda (containing about 140 calories) per day. Is a can of non-diet soda per day something to worry about? If common sense is not enough to answer that question, then consider the food recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
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In its dietary guidelines for Americans — a.k.a. the “Food Pyramid” — the USDA recommends the servings that should be consumed daily from different food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk and oils. The USDA makes these recommendations for different levels of individual daily calorie consumption, starting at a 1,000-calorie-per-day diet and going up to a 3,200 calorie-per-day diet.
In addition to fruits, vegetables, grains and the other food groups, the USDA also includes a category labeled, “Discretionary calorie allowance,” which constitutes the calories left over for each diet level after consuming the recommended amounts from the other food groups. Someone who should consume 1,000 calories per day and who ate the recommended portions of fruits, grains, meats, milk and oils would only have consumed 835 calories. That person would have 165 calories left over for discretionary eating — more than enough room for a 140-calorie can of non-diet soda. At the high-end of daily calorie consumption, someone who is on a 3,200-calorie-per-day diet would have a discretionary calorie allowance of 648 calories — more than 4.5 cans of non-diet soda.
The bottom line is that, all calories being equal, a can of non-diet soda per day — that is, Kristof’s ominous 35 gallons per year — is well with the guidelines of the USDA’s Food Pyramid for most people and so cannot be viewed as a persuasive factoid in support of Paterson’s proposed tax.
Kristof is also way off base in his effort to liken non-diet soft drinks to tobacco. “These days,” Kristof asserts, “sugary drinks are to American health roughly what tobacco was a generation ago.” Kristof then quotes long-time food nanny Barry Popkin, who says, “Soft drinks are linked to diabetes and obesity in the way that tobacco is to lung cancer.”
As this column has pointed out before, there simply is no scientific basis for concluding that non-diet drinks cause obesity or diabetes. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2002 that, “There is no clear and consistent association between increased intake of added sugars and [body weight].” And this remains true today.
An August 2008 review of research on soft drinks and weight gain by Emily Wolff (Boston University School of Medicine) and Michael Dansinger (Tufts University) concluded, “Sugar-sweetened soft drink intake has increased dramatically during the past few decades, yet the magnitude of the weight gain and adverse health effects by soft drinks are poorly understood due to a paucity of clinical trial data… which would be necessary to demonstrate a causal link between sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption and weight gain.” The translation is that despite decades of research — including at least five clinical trials — into the health effects of soft drinks, scientists still can’t identify any specific harm with any certainty.
Public health scolds unfortunately often try to blacken and intimidate anyone who disagrees with them by likening them to the tobacco industry. But to the extent there is any deceit-in-the-name-of-money being practiced in the case of non-diet drinks, that charge is more appropriately laid at the feet of the New York Governor and his supporters in the media and public health industry. If this group was sincere about its concern for obese children, it would do something other than just exploiting them as a means of raising money for the state.