Will Moore didn’t plan to order soda with his lunch Wednesday. But he agreed with a Congressional candidate up the block that taxing customers who do would pose a threat to “freedom.”
Elizabeth Logan wasn’t drinking soda, either. She ordered bottled water. Unlike Moore, she said she has “no problem” taxing junk food like sweetened soda.
Moore and Logan were eating at Orangeside Luncheonette on Orange Street. A block away, outside the federal building, Wayne Winsley, the Republican candidate for the Third District U.S. Congressional District seat, was talking about beverages, not drinking them.
Winsley called a press conference to blast his opponent, incumbent Democrat Rosa DeLauro, for publicly suggesting that the federal government should start taxing soda as one of several ways to fight the country’s child obesity epidemic. That epidemic, she said, is “harming both the health and the quality of life of our kids.”
Government has no “business” “com[ing] into your house” to “tell you what you should or should not eat,” Winsley declared.
DeLauro’s remarks went mini-viral after she made them last week. Wednesday they landed back home as the first issue in play in this year’s campaign.
Taking On “Big Soda”
At a press conference last Wednesday organized by a group called “SNAP to Health” to oppose proposed cuts in food stamps, DeLauro suggested considering a federal tax on soda, too. (Click on the play arrow to watch some of her remarks. Click here for a story about the bigger picture she and other national anti-obesity “leaders” are presenting at venues like a recent “Life’s Sweeter National Soda Summit” to counter the marketing efforts of “Big Soda.”)
Here’s what DeLauro said at last Wednesday’s press conference:
“As it is, swelling malnutrition and obesity rates in America are a double-edged sword, aimed right at a generation of children. On one hand, middle-class and working families are working harder than ever to make ends meet, and poverty, child hunger, and food insecurity are on the rise. In 2010, nearly 15 percent of American households were food insecure. This means nearly 50 million Americans, including over 16 million children, faced the real risk of going to bed hungry.
“On the other hand, we face a growing epidemic of child obesity that is harming both the health and the quality of life of our kids. Even as adult obesity has doubled in recent years, we have seen child obesity triple.
“We need to do more to improve access to affordable, healthy foods. And to make healthy choices easy choices for everyone. That includes reforming our agriculture and health programs to support the production and availability of these foods.
“For example, we should support programs in the farm bill that encourage the production of fruits and vegetables rather than ones that make unhealthy additives like high fructose corn syrup so cheap. And we need to encourage marketing of nutritious foods to kids and ensure accurate and fair marketing. For example, we know that cereals marketed to kids have 85 percent more sugar and 65 percent less fiber than those marketed to adults! We also need to make sure that foods labeled as a ‘healthy choice’ are really in fact healthy.
“And we have to address the situation in the marketplace. Right now, the least expensive beverages are often those with the least value to our health—like regular cola, or ‘juice’ drinks that are only 10 percent juice. But if you’re paying $3.49 for juice and 79 cents for soda and you have to stretch your dollar, you’re going to go with the 79-cent soda.
“So maybe one of the things we ought to look at is a soda tax. Maybe we should look at that amongst several other areas that we are looking at.”
Winsley Brings It Home
Those remarks washed up on the virtual shores of a string of right-wing websites. (Sample headline: “Marxist Democrat Rosa DeLauro wants a federal tax on soda pop now.”)
And they reemerged Wednesday afternoon at a press conference outside the federal building on Orange Street in New Haven.
Winsley (pictured above), the Republican candidate running against Democrat DeLauro this year, held a press conference to attack the idea.
Winsley criticized the notion of “pay[ing] a tax on how [people] choose to quench their thirst.”
“If it weren’t so stupid it would be hilarious. But it’s not funny at all,” said the candidate, a former disk jockey and talk-radio host turned motivational speaker. “What business is it of mine to come into your house and tell you what you should or should not eat?”
Winsley’s and DeLauro’s positions reflect a raging national debate about the government’s role in public health, with sugary beverages and cereals the latest frontier. (It’s raging most visibly in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban the sale of 16-ounce or larger sugary soft drinks.) Public-health advocates on DeLauro’s side argue that a mix of government policies—more consumer information about the healthfulness (or not) of products, more healthful choices in school lunches, and taxes that create incentives of what to buy—are needed to combat a national obesity epidemic. Soft-drink corporations and limited-government advocates on Winsley’s side take a skeptical view of both the effectiveness and wisdom of punitive or aggressive government action interfering with the sale of products people want to buy.
“Encouraging consumer choices through information, absolutely fine. But I’ll submit to you this: This idea of taxing behavior if it worked, why do people still buy cigarettes? A single pack of cigarettes is $8.50. Yet people all across America, rich and poor, are still lighting up,” Winsley said at Wednesday’s press conference.
“We have the so-called sin taxes. They’re very popular. They’re great revenue sources for the government. It’s just another opportunity for incumbents like Rosa DeLauro to put their hands in your pockets. Get your hands out of the people’s pockets.”
Maintenance worker Moore (pictured) sympathized with Winsley’s policy argument, even though he buys the public-health argument against soda.
“I don’t drink soda. It’s not good for you,” he said as he waited in line to order lunch at Orangeside. But he questioned whether a tax would succeed in stopping people from buying soda. In any case, he said, if the government starts taxing soda, “they can do that to anything. It’s freedom” at stake.
Nearby, Logan (pictured) was enjoying a lunch of fish and chips and bottled Poland Spring water. (“A healthy drink and fried lunch: A balanced meal!”) She embraced DeLauro’s soda-tax suggestion.
Soda “has no nutritional value,” reasoned Logan, who works at the Yale Bookstore. “It’s sugar. It’s chemicals. Why not tax it?
“They don’t want to pay the tax, they don’t have to buy it. They can just have water. You’ve got to pay taxes on other luxury items. ... I have no problem taxing junk food.”
Mental health worker Laketa Moore (pictured) took a middle position.
She described herself as “on the fence” about a soda tax. She clearly supports changing school lunch menus to offer more healthful options. (New Haven’s public schools have been at the forefront of that effort.) And “people need to get more information” about sugar content and other health effects of the foods they buy. On the other hand, she acknowledged, “people are going to think that’s infringing on their personal rights and freedoms” if faced with a tax.
Meanwhile, she said, “people have to regulate themselves.” She’s trying to do that that. She tries to avoid drinking soda. After a visit to the Peabody Museum’s “Big Food” exhibit, she learned that the sweetened iced tea she drinks has just as much (or more) sugar. She’s “struggling” to limit her sugar intake, especially since she has a young son for whom she wants to serve as a positive example.
At lunch Wednesday she drank coffee. “Sugar and cream,” she acknowledged. “I’m a work in progress.”