Should beverages containing high fructose corn syrup or caffeine be taxed at a higher rate to decrease consumption?

According to a post on helium.com, “Scientific studies suggest that the over-consumption of soft drinks can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, hypertension, tooth problems, bone weakening, bone demineralization, heart diseases, strokes and cancer, among other [severe health conditions].”[1] Furthermore, according to Fox Business, “Kids that consume caffeinated energy drinks are at risk for anxiety, high blood pressure and sleeplessness.”[2] Such negative health effects of high fructose corn syrup and caffeine-containing beverages are undeniable; such information is virtually common knowledge.

The fact remains, however, that consumers of these products choose to consume them. So what should be the government’s role be in decreasing the consumption of these goods? Absolutely none – the government has no business whatsoever in safeguarding our blood sugar levels or body mass indices.

Consumers have a right to choose what they consume, how often they consume it, and why or how they consume it. Within the category of consumers we may separately consider parents and their children; the former may properly discourage their children from partaking in unhealthy habits, including but not limited to the consumption of soft drinks and energy drinks; the latter should be permitted to spend any money they earn in any way they like. Neither group has the right to dictate how a grocery store stocks its shelves, and is not entitled to force companies – whose products they are in no way obligated to purchase – to make or stop making certain items. Private organizations of consumers, however, have the right to create healthier products, organize people to boycott an unfavorable product, or to seek other methods of discouraging others from using such products – provided that they are not using force, public money, or misinformation. An increased tax on caffeinated or high fructose corn syrup-containing beverages – no matter how small it would be – would effectively constitute a sin tax, which on principle would punish individual consumers, including those who purchase these products regularly enough to be undeterred by a tax, and those who only purchase them occasionally as indulgences.

Producers, on the other hand, have the right to produce as much as they want of a given product for as long as they are able to do so without government intervention, and to sell it at whatever price or advertise it to whatever demographic they desire. They do not have the right to rely on government subsidies or to enjoy limited competition as a result of raised taxes on another company (e.g. a milk company seeing higher sales in a month after taxes on soft drinks have been imposed). Faced with a sin tax on soft drinks and caffeine, producers of these beverages would see decreased sales as a result of indirect government force which would leave other products un-touched. Though the government would not be actively preventing consumption, it would still be limiting individuals’ right to choose.

The underlying principle which the government must properly respect for consumers and producers alike is the right to choose – the right to choose the contents of our stomachs, the path of our habits, and the individuals or groups with which we associate, patronize, and market to (or refrain from associating with, patronizing or marketing to). Consumers must be allowed to make intelligent (or stupid) decisions with regard to their own health. Producers must be allowed to function freely and compete fairly, without help or hindrance from government-manufactured taboos or funds.

The associated nutritional shortcomings and social taboos of such products, as well as the frequency with which one consumes such products, are irrelevant to the consideration of the rights of producers and consumers to choose. Incidentally, this principle applies equally to alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, and marijuana.[3] As such, no amount of studies on the negative health effects of these products – no number of associated diseases or deaths – will constitute an argument in favor of the violation of individual rights. Freedom, not favorable public health statistics, is the proper concern for government.

Bearing this principle in mind, common arguments for taxing the beverages in question can be easily dealt with. Some would argue that a tax would discourage people from buying soft-drinks or energy drinks, thereby decreasing obesity rates. Some would argue that a tax would be a practical way to raise revenues for healthcare or to keep consumers from “making bad decisions”.[4] Both camps are right – these methods would work. But that, once again, is irrelevant if one’s concern is with rights; these methods would violate the right to choose which products to make and use.

[1] Pomoni, C. “How to cut back on soft drink consumption” Helium.com, October 5 2009

[2] Rogers, K. “Energy drinks: should your child drink them?” Fox Business, September 12 2011

[3] Daley, B. “Collectivism and the Soda Tax” The Center for Objective Health Policy, July 15 2009

[4] Glaeser, E. “Demonizing, and/ or taxing, soda” The New York Times, September 22 2009

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2 thoughts on “Should beverages containing high fructose corn syrup or caffeine be taxed at a higher rate to decrease consumption?

  1. Jeff says:

    Another insidious problem with taxing consumer goods is the effect the tax has on government. Just as a person may become addicted to products like caffeine, the government becomes addicted to the tax levied on a product so that the product will never go away – it would not be in the revenue interest of the government to turn off the revenue stream – just look at tobacco if you need convincing.

  2. That’s true – they come up with jobs that shouldn’t exist and do whatever they can to keep them. Plus, “regulation breeds regulation”.

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