Sugar-Tax Smackdown: NYU Hosts Debate on Proposed Soda Levy

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On one side: the state's top health official. On the other: a libertarian activist.

In the middle: a 400-calorie energy drink and a proposed tax on sugary beverages.

Justin Wilson (left) from the Center for Consumer Freedom sparred with New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines. (Photo by Margaret Figley, NYS Health Foundation)

Several state Senators from both parties say that tax is as dead as a day-old glass of Coke. In a 31-to-30 Senate, it doesn't take much to kill an unpopular bill in Albany. So it doesn't look good.

But you wouldn't know it to hear Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines argue that the tax is necessary to counter sugary beverages he says are "too cheap, too big, universally available -- and relentlessly marketed, especially to children."

Daines squared off Tuesday at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service against Justin Wilson, from the Center for Consumer Freedom, a libertarian organization with undisclosed commercial backing. Wilson thinks government has an obligation to inform people, but not to guide their choices.

"I don't think the tax code should be a tool for social engineering," he says. "I think the tax code should be for raising revenue. And if you're the head of a large public health agency, and you're facing significant cuts, then you should be able to raise money on the merits of your work, not on the backs of people who are just trying to enjoy life."

Both men had open disdain for the other. Daines at the outset said science was on his side. He said there are often opponents to mainstream scientific findings who just take a while to get with the program -- like the people who for years denied that smoking is bad for you, or the people who continue to cast suspicion over the safety of vaccines. Daines said these people propagate "misinformation" and are often backed by "vested interests who want to prolong something after the science is settled."

But Wilson had some research on his side, too. Daines quoted the New England Journal of Medicine. And Wilson cited an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that he said, "looked at 12 of the major studies [and] found that there's no statistically significant evidence to suggest that childhood obesity is directly related -- as the people who seem to advocate on behalf of soda taxes -- to soda consumption."

Daines acknowledged that many different things are fattening up Americans, and it will take many different efforts to slim them down. But to him, decreasing sugary drinks is a useful low-lying-fruit step to reducing calorie intake. He brandished a 32-ounce can of Monster Energy Drink for effect, reading the "instructions" on the side of the can: "Recommended Use: One big can per day. Wimps, health nuts and busy bodies need not apply."

But many juices aren't much better, Wilson countered -- and pointed out that some of the drinks offered before the debate had as many calories as soda, like sweetened cranberry juice and whole milk. Wilson said people have to decide for themselves how much they eat and exercise and come to their own balance "between taking risks, finding pleasure, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle."

Some opponents in the state Senate have taken up the mantra "taxes never made anyone healthier." Daines called that "ridiculous."

"Tobacco taxes reduced tobacco consumption," he said. "The mandated tax about putting airbags in cars reduced accident rates. And of course taxes make people healthier -- that's why we pay Medicare and Medicaid taxes."

Wilson said people in Colorado are the fittest in the country because they have great mountains to hike and bike and ski in. Daines sarcastically suggested growing more mountains. But Wilson, finishing his thought, offered something both could agree on: With or without natural splendor, local governments could do more to encourage exercise, with better parks and more bike lanes, and more to educate people about how to prepare and consume healthier food.