Last week, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a long-serving progressive Democrat from Connecticut, introduced the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act. (Somehow, this abbreviates to "The SWEET Act.") If passed, it will change the way that our country consumes beverages by levying a tax on sugar and caloric sweeteners.
Of course, it won't pass. And that's okay.
First, the details of the proposal. The bill calls for a one-cent-per-teaspoon tax on beverages that have sugar and caloric sweeteners. That 20-ounce bottle of Coke you swig down with your lunch? It has 65 grams of sugar, which translates to 13 teaspoons. That means whatever you're paying will be bumped up by 13 cents. Not a huge amount on a per-transaction level, but it will certainly have an affect on your end-of-year bank account.
The money raised from the tax will be used to:
[F]und initiatives designed to reduce the human and economic costs of obesity, diabetes, dental problems and other health conditions related to sugar-sweetened beverages. This includes prevention and treatment programs, research and nutrition education.
But the sentiment of using tax-raised money to fund programs isn't altruistic. As DeLauro cites in her bill, diseases related to the consumption of sugary beverages account for roughly $190 billion a year in health care costs. Of that, 20 percent (or $38 billion) is paid for by taxpayer money. The implication is that now we're all paying for those drinking sugary drinks, so why not just cut out the middlemen and have the drinkers pay for it themselves?
Of course, despite the publicity this bill is getting, there's a better chance of John Boehner taking time away from trying to impeach the President to introduce a bill on gun reform than this thing passing. Meaning, this may be the last time we hear about The SWEET Act at all. But, as Mark Bittman at the New York Times points out, widespread reform does not happen overnight:
The first national health care act was proposed in 1939, and the modern history of anti-tobacco legislation began in the 1960s. Both are now powerful realities.
Soda tax, once thought of as simply the insane ramblings of an out-of-touch New York mayor, is an idea that actually has legs. Berkeley and San Francisco both have soda tax initiatives working their way through local legislation, and both are expected to pass in one form or another. Earlier this year, Mexico passed a national soda tax, which has reduced the sales of sugary drinks by five percent. The movement towards soda taxation has forward momentum. If it doesn't pass this time, it doesn't mean the fight is over.
Some of the most important victories begin with defeats.
For an example, let's head back to November of 2008 for a second. While the election of Barack Obama as President was considered a sign that America was heading down a progressive path, that idea was substantially undercut when the results on California's Proposition 8 began rolling in. When the votes were counted, 52 percent of the state's population felt same-sex marriage should be outlawed, and so it was.
But, that was a short-lived victory for opponents of same-sex marriage. The shocking loss galvanized the movement to where now, only five years later, nineteen states in the country issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Including California.) What started as a defeat led to the public consciousness changing and, ultimately, a victory.
What we're now is possibly the same thing with soda taxes. While DeLauro's bill will quickly be ushered out the door and into the trash heap, the idea's out there and, ever so slowly, building up support. It's not out of the realm of possibility that future historians looking at the timeline of the soda tax point to this legislation as the first big step towards reform.
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