Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bottled up on soft drink taxes

Anyone seen the restaurant business? Big trade, lots of forks, all kinds of uniforms? It’s usually a considerable presence, but lately it could qualify for one of those “Missing” alerts on milk cartons. The industry is facing a serious crimp in its livelihood, a threat that could still be countered or reshaped into something less damaging. Yet the restaurant industry is nowhere to be heard in the debate over soft-drink taxes.

The argument has grown into a loud non-stop fight here in New York. Turn on a TV during a heavily watched program and you’ll likely see a plea to protect the health of children for “a few extra pennies.” By taxing soft drinks, the commercials explain, New York State can save more children from obesity and the terrible illnesses it triggers, like diabetes and heart disease.

Then again, you might catch a spot featuring a grocer from the inner city, explaining that most of his customers shop with a list, to keep their purchases to what’s needed, and a calculator, to make sure they have the pennies to afford what’s in their carts. Please, it implores, tell your state lawmakers not to support Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to levy a tax on soft drinks, because it’ll only hurt the poor.

In case your cable is out, you can catch the same sort of messages in newspaper ads, local media coverage and op-ed pieces. There is a tremendous amount of noise on the issue.

Yet you won’t hear the restaurant industry’s voice.

It’d be wrong to single out New York restaurateurs for their silence. It’s no different in the slew of other places that want to extend the sin tax to chocolate milk, sports drinks or other sugared soft drinks. Some locations even want to levy the sales tax on bottled water and diet drinks.

Sports drinks? Bottled water? Sugar-free sodas? They don’t sound like obesity contributors to me. And, indeed, if you look at the measure’s supporters, you’ll see unions and other groups behind it. They care less about childhood obesity than using the proceeds from the tax to prop up the state’s wheezing healthcare system, a major source of membership.

So where’s the challenge from restaurateurs on that point?

The industry’s silence is perplexing because soft drinks are the trade’s big profit contributors. The reticence seems downright reckless when you consider that some experts are already proposing that a sin tax be extended to restaurant foods. No less a body than the American Medical Association has raised the possibility of tacking an 18% tax on pizza to discourage its consumption.

If governments start using food prices as a light saber to prod consumers in a direction deemed healthful by arbitrary authorities, we’re really heading into trouble.

So where are the cries of protest from franchisees, regional chains and other local restaurateurs?

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