Public health officials estimate that Americans consume an average of 40 gallons of sugary soda per person per year. But now thanks to the tireless efforts of Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s Mayor and Nanny-in-Chief, the average New Yorker will now only consume 39.2 gallons of sugary soda per person per year.*
On Thursday, New York City passed the first U.S. ban of oversized sugary drinks as a way of curbing the obesity epidemic. Violators of the ban face a $200 fine for selling a soda in a size that exceeds government standards.
While the legislation is absurd, it’s not the first time a big city mayor has tried to promote healthy food consumption through taxation. As Jordan Ballor pointed out in 2005 when Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick proposed a a 2 percent tax on fast food,
The fast food tax, or “fat tax,” is really the newest incarnation of the age-old “sin” tax. The reasoning is that fast foods, which tend to be higher in calories, fat and cholesterol than other types of food, are unhealthy, and therefore worthy of special government attention.
Of course Bloomberg and the other nanny-state proponents don’t really believe the ban will reduce obesity—at least not by itself. For them, this is but one of the first skirmishes in the Fat Wars. As the liberal economics blogger Matthew Yglesias admits, “Giant sodas in one city and calorie menu labeling on chains nationwide are both very modest gestures, but the same forces that pushed for those will keep coming up with new ways to ratchet-up the stigma and inconvenience associated with ‘empty’ calories.”
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, in an article for AEI’s The American comes to the same conclusion:
The elite media, liberal think tanks, and academic researchers are already building a case against Big Food for its scarlet sins: sweetened drinks, fatty snacks, alcoholic beverages. You know what’s coming next: a wave of punitive government regulation and scores of lawsuits aiming to shake down the nation’s vast food and beverage industry. It’s the same strategy developed for the assault on the tobacco industry—tax the bad stuff out of existence. Today, in New York City, the price of a pack of cigarettes now tops $9 (each pack now carries $5.26 in taxes), which makes the city one of the most expensive places in the country to smoke.
Never mind if you have freely chosen to smoke a cigarette or drink a cold Coke on a hot summer’s day and, mirabile dictu, you take responsibility for your actions. The New Puritans who are ready to dramatically expand the welfare state and limit personal freedoms claim to know what’s best for you.
Even those who agree with the aims of the legislation, however, should be leery of the danger in giving such power to the government. As Rev. Sirico wrote in The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations:
It is a mistake to entrust the modern state with the enforcement of certain moral codes of behavior that extend beyond obvious crimes against person and property. When government is allowed to go beyond these limits and enforce a wider array of moral issues, it will substitute its own form of morality for traditional morality. A government program like recycling, for example, could be deemed more morally worthy than traditional virtues like fidelity in marriage. Obeying securities regulations could be seen as the very heart of virtue, whereas teaching children at home seen as a vice. The government’s sense of morality, especially when it is influenced by excessive power, is often at war with traditional standards and common sense.
Rev. Sirico wrote those prophetic words in 1995. Seventeen years later we see that the government’s attempt to substitute its own form of morality for traditional morality is not only ongoing but getting closer to completion every day.
* Health Commissioner Thomas Farley thinks the law could result in shrinking one sugary drink per person every two weeks from 20 ounces to 16 ounces. That comes to 104 ounces or .8125 gallons per year.