October 10 2012
Advocates of the soda tax are applauding two California cities set to vote on a new one-cent per ounce tax on soda, which they say will help to reduce childhood obesity. Like most California moms, I find this argument tempting: It is just a few pennies, after all. I want to help kids make healthy choices. But study after study has proven that soda taxes are a completely ineffective weapon in the fight against obesity.
Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Arkansas have taxed soda for years, yet these four states continue to have among the highest percentages of obese citizens in the country. These "sin taxes" only begin to influence consumer behavior if they add a dollar or more to the price. So why are politicians in Richmond and El Monte pushing one-cent taxes on soft drinks?
Simple: Soda taxes may do little to cure childhood obesity, but they can work miracles for cash-strapped city governments. Many California municipalities are sinking because of outrageous debt, mismanagement scandals, and a shrinking taxpayer pool. It is no surprise that politicians are coming up with new and creative ways to increase revenues.
Here's an idea: Why don't we instead focus on actual, scientifically-proven ways to reduce childhood obesity? After all, we do know how to combat this problem: frequent family dinners at home, reduced time in front of a television screen, and increased time playing outside. Healthy kids are a product of how we live, not just what we buy.
The National Wildlife Federation finds that on average, American boys and girls spend just four to seven minutes playing outside every day, compared to more than seven hours in front of an electronic screen.
A study released in April by the Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that half of American preschoolers do not go outside on a daily basis. Think of that - Californians will move heaven and earth to pass laws mandating that chickens raised in our fair state have adequate room to breathe and grow in a healthy environment, yet half of our little guys are trapped inside all day long?
Only a generation ago, 75 percent of school-aged children played outside daily. A generation before that, parents thought nothing of sending their kids out unsupervised for long summer days to be welcomed home again only when the street lights came on. It is easy to blame parents for the nation's childhood obesity problem, but have you been outside lately? The closest big city to me is Stockton, which filed for bankruptcy in June and boasts one of the top ten highest violent crime rates in the nation.I do not blame parents for barricading their children indoors all day long if Stockton is waiting outside for them.
Perhaps our city governments should get their own houses in order before dictating to us what we should and shouldn't buy.
Childhood obesity isn't skyrocketing because people have access to soda. It is skyrocketing because our quality of life is plummeting. Somewhere along the line, we determined that keeping our kids indoors with electronic screens all day is preferable to letting them go out into the society we've created for them. Politicians should be working with parents to reverse this mindset, not proposing a useless new soda tax.
How is it that in California we do not hesitate to believe in the promise of high-speed rail or alternative energy sources, but so many of us have given up hope of living in a society where parents can say to their kids in good conscience: "Go outside and play. I will call you when dinner is ready"?
Lane Scott is a Ph.D. candidate and a John M. Olin Foundation Fellow at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University. She's also a visiting fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.