Daniel Engber, senior editor of Slate, writes:
A fat tax, then, discriminates among the varieties of gustatory experience. And its impact would fall most directly on the poor, nonwhite people who tend to be the most avid consumers of soft drinks and the most sensitive to price. Under an apartheid of pleasure, palatable drinks are penalized while delicious—or even hyperdelicious—products come at no extra charge. What about the folks who can’t afford a $5 bottle of POM Wonderful? No big deal, say the academics writing in the New England Journal of Medicine; they can always drink from the faucet. Here’s how the article puts it: “Sugar-sweetened beverages are not necessary for survival, and an alternative (i.e. water) is available at little or no cost.” So much for Let them eat cake.
We’ve known for a long time that any sin tax is likely to be a burden on the poor, since they’re most prone to unhealthy behavior. (James Madison fought the snuff tax on these grounds way back in 1794.) But you might just as well say that poor people have the most to gain from a sin tax for exactly the same reason. It’s also possible that revenues from a fat tax would be spent on obesity prevention—or go back to the community in other ways. There’s a knotty argument here about the vexing and reciprocal interactions among health, wealth, and obesity. It’s not clear whether, and in what direction, a soda tax might redistribute wealth. Whatever you think of the economics, though, raising the price on soda—and offering water in its place—will redistribute pleasure.
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