WORDS: JOSEPH EARL THOMAS | ART: LOVEIS WISE

Once upon a time, I was all about a sweetened beverage tax. It was peak knee-jerk reaction.

I don’t drink soda anyway, sugar bad, make human fat, unhealthy, tax for own good,” I thought. I hadn’t realized then –when I was at Drexel’s PA school debating health care issues in a research class– how condescending that line of thinking could be; I didn’t see any of the epistemological blind spots even though I, myself, was one of them.

By the time Jim Kenney passed the sugary beverage tax in Philly, the 1.5 cents per ounce tax on select sweetened beverages, I’d almost forgotten myself; my younger, broker self, running down Margaret Street rockin’ dicked New Balances in the blizzard of 96’, in love with a bottle of fifty-cent Day’s soda. It was the blue one. Not blueberry or whatever, no pretense, no lies, none of that X percent juice tomfoolery, just the bottled amalgamation of sugar, water, CO2 and blue, blue, blue. And “Blue Pop” was her name.

That soda wasn’t pretending about a goddamn thing, but the bill to tax it clearly is. The paternalism and alleged benefits used to justify it make my ass itch. The whole thing feels like a standardized test question in which one must point out the flaws: “We will impose a 1.5 cents per ounce tax on distributors,” says Mayor of X city, Gotham, if you please. The fact that the cost will trickle down to consumers is obvious, “which will curb obesity and pay for expanded pre-k; new community schools; improving parks, rec centers and libraries; and will offer tax credits for businesses selling healthy beverages.” The citizens may think, look at what happened with the cigarette tax. Sounds wonderful, continue the citizens, and sugar equals bad anyway. What a win it will be for all.

In order to weigh the reasonability of cigarette taxation with sugary beverages for health standards, one must imagine life in a vacuum.

The popular comparison to the cigarette tax ignores the fact that our bodies metabolize sugar, not nicotine for energy and that the sugar tax includes say, the Gatorade which physicians recommend in equal portion with water for high performing athletes. In order to weigh the reasonability of cigarette taxation with sugary beverages for health standards, one must imagine life in a vacuum. One where daily activity, the sum consumption of all non-taxed foods and beverages as well as genetics have less effect on obesity than the existence of sugary drinks alone. Then, we’d have to assume the link between smoking–both first and second hand, neither of which is fine in moderation like soda–emphysema, and lung cancer to be equal, not starkly greater, than the potential consumption of sugary beverages.

The health care cost comparison of the two in a for-profit industry isn’t worth mentioning; It’s simply a distraction from moving to a single payer system like any civilized country. The cigarette tax was also brought on to help Philly schools, though this year, the tax revenue from cigarettes will fall $26 million dollars below projections. The whole taxing thesis is antithetical. In order to gain revenue, the soda must be bought, but we’re supposed to be curbing consumption simultaneously. We should also consider that some people who have the means to do so, can, and will buy their beverages outside the city.

The whole taxing thesis is antithetical. In order to gain revenue, the soda must be bought, but we’re supposed to be curbing consumption simultaneously.

And then I consider the Green Tea Latte I’m poised to enjoy from Starbucks, and that I’m the only Black person in the line. The other patrons don’t look like they’ve ever enjoyed Blue Pop, nor are they concerned about a tax no matter how much sugar–artificial or otherwise–they pile into their drinks. There was no Starbucks in my youth. So while everything available in my neighborhood was subject to markups, wide swaths of beloved Becky beverages are left unscathed. The burden must always fall disproportionately on us, which, thinking about the language used in favor of the tax, makes unfortunate sense.

And while he and others mention how the bill disproportionately targets poor people, such statements are conveniently non-raced.

Even more so, it’s suspect that when additional city funds are needed, people who make around $200K a year decide that those making a quarter of that (or less) need to pay, most of whom are non-whites. Then there’s Pepsi eliminating 80-100 positions because, you know, they’re a “suffering” business. It’s those people, though, us, or in Jim’s mind, the plebeians, who are in dire need of his assistance. And it must be done in his way, on the backs of those people who need said help. Darren Bakst of the heritage foundation remarked, “The Philadelphia City Council decided it knew what its city residents should eat and drink. Freedom was apparently not important to them.” And while he and others mention how the bill disproportionately targets poor people, such statements are conveniently non-raced. The limited consideration of politicians and pundits never ceases to amaze. It’s as if dad is withholding our allowances for a college fund and will disown us if we don’t go, but even that’s for the favorites, the un-raced “poor;” the unthought remain unthought. We’re such rascals! They must think, in their benevolence. I laughed when reading about where the money will go, and await the steady stream of allocation adjustments in the near future.

There’s always this kind of failure of imagination on the part of liberal democrats, those who our communities tend to side with. On the surface, there’s the appearance of inclusion, a sweeping consideration for all. This, of course, is conveyed with broad, empty language that I can’t help but find condescending, like whenever someone says the word “patriotism.” It would appear that talking down is mandated along with a little plug about diversity or MLK (if it’s February). The tiniest sliver of recognition to those on the margins will do. Clinton’s crime bill back in 94’ hurt more than soda, but the thinking was the same, Midnight Basketball or not. It’s always benevolent bootstrapping. Always. They need our help, and we shall deliver the poor bastards from evil.

Sure, the Republican versus Democrat paradigm will still have some validity. It’s hard to compare any democratic decisions with the shit 45 is up to, but that’s not a reason to validate or excuse thoughtlessness from within. Can’t be caught slippin too often. And there are still times, in anger (mostly with family) where I’d like to toughen them up for their own good. I’ve demanded that they do a ton of shit, including drink less soda and more water (it’s lack of consistent availability being another irony in this SSB debate), but that’s some totalitarian bullshit, and most of us, certainly not I, would never tolerate such limited autonomy. More importantly, it simply doesn’t work.

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