The Justification for a Soft Drink Tax The Coca-Cola brand has built itself into a staple of American culture. This is a terrifying thought for public health advocates who see Coke and other soft drinks as being major culprits behind a growing national health crisis. Empirical evidence shows that over-consumption of soft drinks clearly causes harm to the individuals who consume them, however, the waging battle over soda legislation will not be won on the grounds of health alone.
The argument that Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other soft drink firms present is deeply rooted in American values and cannot easily be trumped. What they argue for is freedom of choice. In his book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill states, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (9). If an individual chooses that he wants to drink soda pop, he should be allowed a high degree of liberty to make that decision.
Such is the foundation of a soft drink firm’s purported right to exist. If consumers demand it, Coca-Cola executives will get as red in the face as their soda cans stating that they play an innocent and vital role in fulfilling that demand. One method through which public health advocates wish to regulate soft drinks is in the implementation of a soda tax. Advocates for such a tax may argue that individuals who harm themselves by overindulging in soda should be limited in their consumption.
Since supply and demand are sensitive to market conditions, a tax would undoubtedly lower the quantity of soda demanded, particularly in low-income families where obesity and diabetes are most common. Mill claims that “to tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable. Every increase of cost is a prohibition to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste” (99).
Soft drink firms would cite Mill here in their argument that individuals’ “choice of pleasures and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to the individuals, are their own concern and must rest with their own judgment” (99). While Mill’s line of reasoning would appear to speak against a soft drink tax, he goes on to remind us that “taxation for fiscal purposes is absolutely inevitable… It is hence the duty of the State to consider, in the imposition of taxes, what ommodities the consumers can best spare… [and] to select in preference those of which it deems the use, beyond a very moderate quantity, to be positively injurious” (100). Being that over-consumption of soda pop is certainly injurious to the consumer, and especially in light of the current economic downturn in this country, Mill would approve of a soft drink tax as an effective means through which to produce revenue for the State.
While a tax on soft drinks would be permissible by Mill’s standards, some proponents of soft drink legislation would go so far as to ban their sale altogether. However, even if the vast majority of the public were motivated to impose such a ban, Mill would hesitate to condone such a severe form of coercion. The basis for Mill’s harm principle is that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any members of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (9).
Although soft drink firms have a clear interest in “promoting intemperance” (99) in order to generate profit, those firms will argue fervently that the consumption of soda is not such a great evil that the State would be justified in “imposing restrictions and requiring guarantees which… would be infringements of legitimate liberty” (99). Therefore, in order to present a stronger argument for a ban on soft drinks, advocates would do well to prove that in drinking soda pop, individuals cause harm not only to themselves, but also to others.
To consume soft drinks to the point of excess can lead to the deterioration of an individual’s health. This may appear to be a self-regarding action until one considers the cost such individuals impose on taxpayers. Citizens whose unhealthy lifestyles regularly land them in the hospital eat up government health care, at which point their actions cease to be self-regarding and become harmful to society at large. With this in mind, are we still to protect individuals’ liberty to drink soda pop?
Soft drink firms may point to Mill in arguing that the accountability for such harm lies not with soda, but with the society that raises gluttonous individuals. If grown people are incapable of properly taking care of themselves, society must consider that it “has had absolute power over them during all the early portion of their existence; it has had the whole period of childhood and nonage in which to try whether it could make them capable of rational conduct in life” (80). It is on this point that we must consider the role that mass media plays in the world today.
The pervasiveness of corporate advertising in the U. S. manipulates children’s impressionable faculties of reason, subverting the ability of even responsible parents and educators to impart rational consumption habits on their young ones. Mill writes that he could not see how people could witness an act of self-harm and think it “more salutary than hurtful, since, if it displays the misconduct, it displays also the painful or degrading consequences which, if the conduct is justly censured, must be supposed to be in all or most cases attendant on it” (81).
This argument is undermined by the fallacy of soft drink advertising, which positively portrays the act of drinking soda without showing the adverse long-term effects of its consumption. When a world-class athlete endorses soda pop, susceptible consumers, particularly children, are inclined to associate soft drinks with scoring goals and dunking basketballs rather than with cancer and heart disease.
In arguing against the proliferation of soft drinks, one should appeal to a fundamental component of Mill’s doctrine, which states that his harm principle does not apply to “children or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury” (9).
In other words; children do not have the maturity to make rational, informed decisions that lead to actions that could potentially cause them harm, for instance, the act of guzzling down a 99 cent Coke. The American Beverage Association would echo John Stuart Mill in saying that “human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter” (74). It is their argument that parents and educators, not government, are responsible for dissuading children to consume soft drinks.
Indeed, parents and educators can form a partnership in banning the sale of soft drinks in schools, but it is beyond their power to prevent a non-responsible child from seeing a deviously enticing soda ad on TV and irrationally choosing to spend his or her allowance on soda pop. Therefore, the State would be justified in regulating children’s access to soft drinks by legally coercing soft drink firms to discontinue their advertisements geared toward children, as well as by imposing a minimum age requirement for the purchasing of soft drinks.