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Soda Jerk: Bloomberg and the Big Gulp

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While Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fine on 44oz or larger sodas has gotten most of the national attention, Richmond, CA will have a proposal on November’s ballot for a tax on sugary drinks that has gone largely unnoticed. Obvious objections aside, such as that neither plan will do much in the fight against obesity, there are at least two thus-far-unmentioned reasons why each plan should be opposed.

First, obesity is not a public health concern. Yes, over 35 percent of adults are obese and we know that obesity leads to all sorts of ailments, from heart disease to diabetes. All are health issues to be sure, but they are not public health issues. The only reason they are considered to be public health issues is that we have a system of health care in which those who don’t pay for a service can still receive that service. This makes it a public problem because the public shares the cost. So we could easily end the public health problem by eliminating the public from the equation and making people responsible for paying their own way.

Second, the plans simultaneously undermine liberty and a sense of personal responsibility. There is a positive correlation between responsibility and liberty. The more liberty one has, the more responsibility one has. Conversely, the less one is made responsible for his or her actions the less liberty one generally will have. Think of the argument many, if not all, parents have used to justify their rules to their children. “As long as you live in my house you live by my rules.” The argument is: if you are not responsible for your bills you do not have the liberty to do what you want when you want. If you take on added responsibility, like moving out and paying your own bills, you can have all the liberty you want.

Laws have a similar effect. When a law is passed, speaking in very general terms, liberty is restricted and responsibility is decreased. The FDA presumably makes the food I eat safe, but the effect is that the liberty of farmers is diminished and the responsibility of the consumer to know where his food comes from is turned over to the government. As a consumer in the U.S. it is easy to think that because it shows up on my supermarket’s shelf it must be safe.

So in the case of the attack on soda, the idea is that we can limit certain liberties if the public at large has to share the burden of the cost associated with those liberties. This seems like a reasonable tradeoff. If you want something you have to give something up in return. However, the way this tradeoff is being proposed in both Richmond and New York is entirely backwards. If we want people to change their behavior, we should allow individual liberty and encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own actions.

Give people a choice. If you choose to drink large quantities of soda, then you also choose to give up the opportunity to receive taxpayer-subsidized health care. So right on the side of a 44oz Big Gulp we could write this warning: “If you drink all this soda you could become obese and could find yourself in need of medical attention. By drinking this soda you assume all risks associated with it and hold the seller, manufacturer, government, and public at large harmless for your actions.” And while we’re at it we could do something similar for tobacco products.

This sounds unrealistic, if only because of the implementation problems. But it poses no greater hurdle to fair implementation than a health care system in which the government will be in charge of deciding on treatment options and making sure health care professionals get paid.

This proposal sounds inhumane because people who need health care may not receive it. But is that any less humane than forcing people who make prudent choices pay for those who don’t? When the government steps in to limit liberty and responsibility it has already dehumanized all of us.

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About Kyle Scott

  • Costello

    Been four days since Dr D found the flaw in The author’s argument regarding the tax and not a peep. A tax on the product seems more reasonable approach than a fine, but since there’s no guarantee the money will go to health costs, not sure that’s a good solution.

    I also don’t believe this libertarian ideal of turning away people who can’t afford healthcare will ever take.

  • roger nowosielski


    Not to mention the fact the author is overly impressed with her credentials.

  • Boeke


    I think I’ve found the source of your distress! You suffer from a severe case of “excluded middle”.

    For example:

    When a law is passed, speaking in very general terms, liberty is restricted and responsibility is decreased.

    Not if the law authorizes a new road and allocates money to pay for paving contractors, etc. Then the liberty of businesses and residents is increased and many businesses have an increased responsibility of finding new customers to fill their stores.

    The FDA presumably makes the food I eat safe,…

    Says who? The FDA is biased to present industry-favorable decisions by an intense lobbying campaign from those very industries. Basically, industry seeks to integrate the FDA into their advertising/propaganda campaign.

    See, you haven’t explained how you go from antecedent to consequent, thus rendering your argument unsound.

    A nightschool course in logic, perhaps at a local community college, would correct that.

  • I don’t understand why the focus is solely on pop anyway. Wouldn’t the warning you’re proposing have to also be carried on candy, ice cream, most fast food menu items, cheese, butter, etc? Plenty of obese people strictly drink diet soft drinks only, while consuming mass quantities of sugar, fat, and calories from a multitude of other super-sized sources. I don’t understand the demonizing of sugary pop alone.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Yes, but you canNOT take care of the diabetes epidemic – for children or adults – until you take care of the obesity problem first. The diabetes epidemic is a symptom of the real problem – obesity.

  • Childhood diabetes is more of a concern to the public health than obesity. This phenomenon leads to all sorts of ugly health outcomes and even some cancers. The public health systems are already burdened with long queues. Any policy that reduces these queues and promotes health is a good thing in all likelihood. There are better alternatives like selling packages of walnuts and even popcorn. There are substitutes like stevia for sugar. We should be pursuing these with all haste.

    The population in this country is growing at 750T per year, and so, any major health problem only grows bigger and more expensive to deal with effectively.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And Kyle –

    If you don’t respond to how you attacked the messenger but ignored the message, while I attacked your message and did not insult you at all…

    …well, I just hope it’s because you’re indisposed, because your past writings would seem to indicate that you’re above such missteps in intelligent discourse.

  • We carry on a system of exclusion and artificial scarcity based on threat and domination, aggression and competition, that benefits only some of us at the expense of the rest.

    The system reveres our basest learnings (violent ones) as our most salient and natural proclivities.

    Your solutions are based in acceptance and promotion of this corrupt system.

    Patriarchy is not inevitable.

  • Kyle,

    There is no one who does not pay (in some way) for any service the gov’t might provide–whether that be with money, blood, or with enforced lack of opportunities.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Kyle –

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life – including my twenty years in the Navy – it’s that every once in a great while it is quite apropos to cuss like a sailor. Your claim that obesity is not a public health threat in America is richly deserving of such profanity.

    That said, instead of refuting the points I made, you attacked me. At NO point did I denigrate the Kyle Scott the person, but I attacked what you SAID. You, on the other hand, attacked me, claiming that I’m incapable of intellectual discourse, and at NO point refuted my points.

    In other words, you committed a basic error of intelligent discourse – you attacked the messenger and ignored the message. Is that really what you want to do?

  • “But is that any less humane than forcing people who make prudent choices pay for those who don’t?”

    If, in the case of Richmond, the tax is to be added to the price of the soda, then people who don’t buy soda won’t be paying it. So how exactly are people making good nutritional choices going to be subsidizing those making bad ones?

    Am I missing something here?

  • troll

    …I guess it’s just too dreamy to look for uncoerced socially responsible behavior like not marketing poison from product manufacturers and simply not consuming the stuff from individuals that would render both versions of big government solutions unnecessary to a degree

    on the other hand in addition to not buying such products and in the name of vigilantism and personal responsibility a few tarred and feathered ad executives and boardroom bigshots run out of gated communities on poles might serve the public interest and would make for colorful history

  • Clav

    If that’s true, the Big Gulp example in your title is faulty.

    It still serves as a symbol…

  • Glenn, well you have exposed your inability to engage in intellectual discourse by relying on profanity, cliches and soft reasoning.

    Roger, I generally find that the articles which are deemed duds are those with the tightest reasoning.

  • A minor point: my understanding is that convenience stores like 7-11s won’t be affected in NYC. If that’s true, the Big Gulp example in your title is faulty.

    But more important, in my view, you have a faulty idea of what “humane” means if you’re suggesting that the government requiring people to shoulder certain expenses is “inhumane.” It may be misguided in some instances, or, if you’re a true-blue libertarian, just plain wrong, but while denying health care to a sick person can be called inhumane, the type of economic coercion you’re talking about simply can’t.

  • roger nowosielski

    Another one?

    The last two have been duds.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Kyle –

    And here’s the first salvo:

    First, obesity is not a public health concern.

    BULLSHIT! Please note that’s the first time in many years that I’ve used profanity like this online…but your statement above is richly deserving.

    Where you made your epic mistake was thinking that something that WILL cause our national life expectancy to fall for the first time since the 1918 H1N1 epidemic isn’t a health concern.

    Kyle, I’m a big proponent of something called the “Goldilocks philosophy”, in that one can have too much of everything – including regulation…and including freedom. The mindset that let everyone do what they will regardless of the consequences has resulted in America being the most violent and (one of) the least educated countries among the first-world nations.

    It is a government’s job do to what is best for the people, to enable them to have the highest standard of living for the longest amount of time – and a longer life expectancy IS part of what residents of a first-world nations SHOULD have. Now while it would not be right for government to ban everything that’s bad for us – for it’s hard to enjoy life without having something that’s bad for us once in a while – there’s NOTHING wrong with the government minimizing access to the worst foods, the ones that shorten our lives the most and result in much higher cost to the taxpayers.

    What Mayor Bloomberg did wrong is NOT that he’s attacking sodas full of high fructose corn syrup (see this link to a study by Princeton), but that he went about it the wrong way. Banning a substance has the same effect that not allowing Coors to be sold east of the Mississippi did back in the day (see “Smokey and the Bandit”), for that only makes those substances more popular. What Bloomberg SHOULD have done is to slap a hefty tax on those sodas, to include high-fructose corn syrup sodas on the list of things subject to “sin taxes”.

    There IS such a thing as too much freedom, Kyle. The rest of the first world understands this. I suggest you learn this lesson too.

  • Clav

    Another very good, well presented idea, Kyle.

    Better don your helmet and flak jacket…