Once again, government meddling might be leading to unintended consequences.
At the beginning of this year, Seattle’s new soda tax — 1.75 cents per ounce of soda — went into effect. At Costco, a now-taxed case of Coca Cola was $7.35 more than a same-size case of Diet Coke. “The tax has many people opting for the diet soda,” reported Seattle’s KIRO-7.
Or not, actually. While diet soda obviously beats regular soda on a caloric level, it’s not clear that it’s actually healthier. Ultimately, Seattle’s push might change buying habits — without making local residents any healthier.
A 2017 study in the journal of the American Heart Association found that if you grab a diet soda to keep you going on a daily basis, your chances for having a stroke or experiencing dementia is three times as high as the person who drinks diet soda weekly.
Drinking diet soda might even promote weight gain: A 2017 review of studies led by Meghan Azad, a researcher at the University of Manitoba, found “routine intake of nonnutritive sweeteners may be associated with increased (body mass index).”
Essentially, by slapping a tax on some drinks, Seattle’s government is now driving people to choose … different unhealthy drinks.
Seattle’s example wouldn’t be the first time when government forays into nutritional guidance has been problematic. The 1992 food pyramid promoted up to a whopping 11 servings of breads and rice, a carb-heavy diet few of us would now consider a wise choice to promote health. In 2016, after decades of government hand-wringing about cholesterol and over-eating eggs, the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines removed the strict cholesterol limit. Which makes sense: Eggs are now widely seen as a great way to get protein.
Yet, as obesity rates remain high, more government officials are looking into soda taxes. Cook County, which includes Chicago, implemented one in 2017 (which did tax diet sodas), before reversing it months later, after public outcry. Philadelphia implemented a soda tax last year as well. Previously, soda taxes have been implemented by the liberal bastions of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, Calif.
But a soda tax, even if it reduces consumption, isn’t a miracle cure for obesity. In Mexico, where a soda tax was implemented in 2014, consumption has declined, but people may be just swapping soda for non-taxed sweets: the obesity rate rose to 72.5% in 2016, up from 71.2% in 2012.
Although there’s no been no nationwide soda tax in the United States, there’s also a disconnect between weight and soda consumption here: “Over the last 20 years, sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25%,” reported the New York Times in 2015. Yet in recent decades, the percentage of overweight and obese Americans have grown, despite the reduced soda consumption.
Outside of heavy-handed taxes, there are ways government officials can take action. Policing neighborhoods so adults and children alike are safe to work out or play outside could help boost exercise, as could increasing parks convenient for people to go to.
Ultimately, though, nutrition issues are complicated. Sometimes, it’s not even about food really: A 2014 study published in Obesity Reviews showed that physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to children significantly upped the risk of obesity in adulthood.
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Even when you only look at food and intake, it can be complex because people can respond differently to the same foods. A 2014 study by the Weizmann Institute in Israel found that people’s blood sugar levels responded differently to different foods. One person had a spike every time she consumed a tomato (generally considered a healthy food!); others had more of a spike in blood sugar from bananas than they did from cookies.
Even if inappropriately assuming the government should meddle into individual dietary decisions, too little is known about nutrition and its effects on weight right now for the government to justify using financial incentives to nudge people into certain kinds of behavior. Nor is it clear, as the Israeli study showed, that one size-fit-all solutions to weight issues makes sense.
When it comes to issues of health and eating, it’s time for the government to butt out — and let Americans figure out for themselves, without skewed financial incentives, what the healthiest way is for them to eat.
Katrina Trinko, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is managing editor for The Daily Signal. Her views do not represent The Heritage Foundation, her employer. Follow her on Twitter: @KatrinaTrinko.