Race and the Soda Pop Tax

I think most of us can think of a commercial for Pepsi or Coke faster than we can think of any advertisement for fruits or vegetables. That’s because the $115 billion dollar soda industry has done a lot to create sugary addictive beverages that are available to everyone just about everywhere. So when a group of researchers released an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that proposed taxing sugary beverages in order to reduce obesity, you can imagine the kind of stir that was created.

On one hand the tax seems to tackle some important problems: it discourages people from consuming the same amounts of soda, in the same way cigarette taxes have been used to cut back on smoking. It also seems to be an indirect way of tackling health in the country: confronting obesity by raising the prices of products that lack in nutritional value. And finally, the taxes could provide money for health care reform. Hey, that all sounds great to me.

But the other hand shows a different perspective, and no not the perspective of soda lobbyists. Instead, this other angle raises the question of who will be the most affected by this tax? Presumably those that consume a lot of soda. I.e. People suffering from obesity. I.e. A huge number of poor people of color. Now this tax is starting to look more like a punishment against groups of people who are victims of larger systems of inequality.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the majority of people suffering from obesity are African Americans and Latinos and are therefore disproportionately at risk of “increased health-care costs, reduced quality of life…premature death…heart disease, hypertension and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.” Will placing a tax on soda be the best solution for addressing these issues? How long will it actually take for people to buy less soda, let alone stop drinking soda?  Has a cigarette tax stopped people from smoking entirely?

There is a larger question of race and class being raised with this issue and that is how can we provide equal access to nutrition, fresh produce, and health education to low income communities and communities of color? The solution lies somewhere in the midst of normalizing healthier lifestyles in these communities through a lot of local organizing, better access to healthier living and food options, and fighting against the targeting of marginalized communities by food and beverage lobbyists. Until these needs are addressed directly and with race and class at the forefront of the conversation, will a soda tax truly sound like a miraculous solution.

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