Telluride voters will find sugar on the ballot

by Allen Best

In my impressionable youth, I believed that there was an “r” in Washington. We “warshed” clothes, and however you might spell it, Colorado was pronounced “Colorada,” which is east of “Hawi-yah.”

Growing up in Fort Morgan, Colo., I also remember the treat of having a 7-Up, a Pepsi-Cola or some other kind of “pop.” When I first heard the word “soda,” I wasn’t sure what the person was talking about.

Later, spending my first year of college in “Missoura,” I heard a clamor one night in the dormitory. It was in Jefferson City, the state capital, located midway between the two largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis.

“Pop,” came one yell, from one hallway. “No, it’s soda,” was the answer from the other side. And so the rival chants grew like cheers at a football game.

I was reminded of that night recently while reading about a local tax proposal in Telluride, Colo. Voters this November will be asked to enact a 1 cent per ounce tax on all sugary drinks, including “soda,” according to the two local newspapers, The Telluride Watch and Daily Planet. (Imagine, a small town having two competing newspapers when Denver can barely support one daily.)

Supporters argue that a tax is necessary because sugar is a bad thing for human health. Most of us know that both sodas and pops (or whatever you call them) are loaded with sugar, mostly from corn fructose. So are the energy drinks that now crowd grocery aisles. A speaker at a recent forum in Telluride demonstrated this in a dramatic way, displaying a one-quart Mason jar two-thirds full of granulated sugar. That, said Harold Goldstein, of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, is how much sugar you consume if you have a soda (pop) every day of the week.

Another speaker, Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist in California, noted that the number of overweight children and obese adults in the United States has doubled over the past 30 years. Much of that increase, he said, can be attributed to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

“When we pour the soda, we pour on the pounds,” he said. Other results: tooth decay and type 2 diabetes. Tax opponents respond to these arguments by saying that sugar consumption should be a matter of personal choice; the nanny state can keep its sticky fingers to itself.

This is a difficult argument no matter which side you’re on, simply because most of us resist absolutist positions. Remember Prohibition? Everyone agrees it was a gigantic failure. The so-called war on drugs has lasted much longer, and it, too, has been a colossal failure with cruel consequences. The very first casualty of the 1937 law that made possession and sale of marijuana a federal offense was an unemployed laborer in Denver. He spent several years in federal prison in Kansas for selling one marijuana cigarette.  Thousands of others have similarly imprisoned for crimes that, at least in Colorado and Washington, are no longer considered crimes.

How about cocaine, heroin, LSD and methamphetamines? On these drugs, and many others, we still draw a hard line. In the case of methamphetamines, there’s a good argument to be made that widespread use has harmful consequences to society. Users tend to get violent. What about heroin? It exacts a terrible individual cost. But what harm does it do to society, save that addicts too often commit crimes to come up with money for their next fix?

If any sugar addicts have busted car windows to steal items that can be sold for their next fix, I haven’t heard of it. But it’s undeniable that sugar has a serious impact on our total health care costs. Long before Obamacare (a term I use without disparagement), the costs of sugar-caused sicknesses such as diabetes were socialized because they were borne by society as a whole.

To the credit of McDonald’s, the fast-food chain now posts the caloric content of its various goods, including soft drinks. I wish other restaurants also shared the calorie count of their food; it would help us make more informed food choices.

If I lived in Telluride, however, I’d probably vote against this “sin” tax, whether they called the sugary drink in question soda or pop. It is certainly true that Americans have a sugar addiction, and like most addictions, it has harmful consequences. But does that mean we need a law against it? Let people decide for themselves.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in the Denver area and publishes an e-zine called Mountain Town News.

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