Family Feast

Who Cares About a Regressive Obesity Policy?

Forgive us for saying so. But this seems a bit like opposite day. On one hand, taxing sugar sweetened beverages is popular in progressive enclaves like Berkeley, California. On the other, the conservative Wall Street Journal is warning that such taxes are highly regressive. They’re hurting vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, says the Journal. Are progressives unwittingly embracing a regressive obesity policy?

Or are we just experiencing another mind-bending effect of truth decay?

A Regressive Tax

Without a doubt, this is a regressive tax. That’s simply because the financial burden falls disproportionately upon low-income households. On top of that basic fact, a recent study by John Cawley and colleagues finds a further reason for concerns. Merchants pass on more of the tax to consumers in high-poverty neighborhoods. Likewise, independent neighborhood stores are passing on the costs more than big chains are.

In its editorial on the subject, the Journal says Philly’s tax is hurting sales and employment at businesses in the city. People are going out of the city to do their shopping.

ShopRite CEO Jeff Brown says this means fewer jobs for people who really need them. He’s closing one of his stores because people are going outside the city to shop. That closure will eliminate 111 jobs. Some of those jobs go to people with criminal records who have a tough time finding work elsewhere. One employee,  Anthony Jackson, told the Journal that he’d be in bad shape without a job at ShopRite, where he’s now a manager:

I’d probably be dead, to be honest. I replaced my crack cocaine with broccoli and macaroni and cheese, which are the top sellers. The Brown family saved me. They showed me something different, that I could be a man in society,

The mayor behind this tax, Jim Kenney, brushes off this concern. He calls the ShopRite CEO “a crybaby.”

Big Soda and Merchants of Doubt

If the crybaby jab is not enough to dismiss the Journal’s concerns, let’s move on to the favored argument against doubters of an SSB tax. They’re pawns of big soda and “merchants of doubt.” You can find that argument all around the world, wherever activists are pushing an SSB tax.

In Philadelphia,  this notion crops up because the city’s black clergy want the tax repealed. They say it’s regressive. It’s hurting the communities they serve. Mayor Kenney seems to think the clergy are pawns of Big Soda. In dismissing their concerns, he equated the clergy with the beverage industry:

We don’t believe those concerns are founded. I am surprised. I’m a little hurt, I’m a little surprised, and I’m a little sad that the beverage guys are continuing down this road.

Meanwhile, more affluent latte drinkers are safe. Their sugary drinks at Starbucks are exempt from SSB taxes. However, Mayor Kenney might want to find a bit more empathy for downscale voters. His tax will likely be a factor in 2019 elections for mayor and council. And dissing constituents with a concern might not serve him well.

It’s also a lousy way to help people.

For more about how SSB taxes affect a community’s health and economy, click here.

Family Feast, painting by Niko Pirosmani / WikiArt

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January 9, 2019

One Response to “Who Cares About a Regressive Obesity Policy?”

  1. January 09, 2019 at 9:12 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    There are centuries of bitterness about the sweet-stuff

    Here is some bittersweet news from ConscienHealth

    Excerpts from one of your post on Nov. 16, 2017

    Soda’s Down, But Obesity’s Up. What Gives?

    We have a bit of good news and a bit of bad news in the soda-obesity war this week. The good news is that soda’s down. A new paper just published online in Obesity confirms what the industry has been saying for several years now. People are drinking less soda. In fact, they’re drinking less of all sugar-sweetened beverages.

    But perhaps most significantly, they found a big drop in the percentage of the youngest kids (2-5 years old) drinking sugary beverages. That number dropped from 70% to 47% between 2003 and 2014. This looks like a victory to the authors, who wrote:

    The overall declines in beverage calories may help to explain the leveling of obesity in the general population and reductions among young children ages 2 to 5 years.

    There’s just one problem. Obesity prevalence has not leveled. The latest CDC data says that it’s reached a new high – 39.6% among adults. Nor is it accurate to claim reductions for young children. As the chart above shows, the latest reading shows prevalence continues to grow for young children, too.

    Bleich et al submitted their paper in June, before the latest data emerged. So their comments reflect the wishful thinking prevalent before CDC published new data in October.

    Real solutions will take more probative research and a willingness to challenge presumptions. If you poke around in obesity-related policy proposals, you will find untested presumptions everywhere.
    In my judgement taxing sweetened beverages is a regressive tax as well as regressive thinking