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Economists weight in on sugar tax

Tamar Haspel has another sensible article in the Washington Post, this time on the potential effects of a soda tax.

She interviewed a slew of top food and agricultural economists, and by and large, I agree with most of what they had to say.  There were three points I would have added.

First, Haspel discusses the potential of sugar (rather than soda) taxes without mentioning the fact that sugar is ALREADY taxed (indirectly via various government programs).  Here's what I wrote in a short piece for the Congressional Quarterly on the issue:

Should the government tax sugared soda? It already does. Farm policies make U.S. sugar prices two to three times higher than elsewhere. Moreover, ethanol policies have led to a more than doubling of the price of high fructose corn syrup since 2005. It’s no wonder that per capita sugar consumption has fallen precipitously over the last decade.

Second, while Haspel mentions a quote from the industry that the taxes are "unfair", she doesn't mention that they're regressive -meaning  the costs being born relatively more by those who can least afford to pay them.  Yes, we need to raise government revenue some way, but as I've noted before, even some good economists seem to miss the fact that we should choose taxes in a way to minimize dead weight loss, not how taxes feel or appeal to a particular cause.

Finally, despite acknowledging that soda taxes are likely to have very little benefits, Haspel concludes,

If the choice is to do this or do nothing, I choose this.

I'm sorry, but if my choice is between nothing and a policy that is paternalistic, regressive, will create economic distortions and deadweight loss, and is unlikely to have any significant effects on public health, I choose nothing.   

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My blogging hasn't been as regular the last couple months due to teaching, traveling, and trying to finish a new book due to the publishers this summer, but I aim to continue to add new material at least a couple times each week.  Thanks for following.

How to be gluten intolerant

You too can be gluten intolerant.  Here's how

Of course, no offense implied for those with Celiac.  

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Should dietitians endorse specific brands?

There seems to be a bit of a storm over this piece in the New York Times related to the decision of groups affiliated with the the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to allow a “Kids Eat Right”  label from the association on Kraft cheese slices (thanks to Kevin Klatt for the pointer).  

I have a few mixed thoughts on this one.   

In general, it seems like a bad idea for an organization that aims to disseminate unbiased information to endorse specific products or companies (or specific policies for that matter), regardless of whether it's Tom's organic asparagus or Kraft cheese slices.  I recognize that, in principle, the label is not an endorsement of the product, but rather an acknowledgement of a contribution to the Kids Eat Right campaign, but that's probably a distinction without a difference to most food shoppers who see the label.

On the other hand, there seems to be a FoodBabe element to the discussions surrounding all this in the sense that there's a lot of hand wringing over an "evil" processed food.  Because the slices are a processed food it must - defacto - be bad, as is any company that makes it.  But, the most evil ingredient listed in the story - "milk protein concentrate" - is about as benign as they come.  I'm not a nutritionist, but seems to me we should be more interested in overall dietary patterns rather than specific foods.

It's little wonder that my recent survey showed little trust in dietary recommendations.  News stories often hype results from eat-that-no-don't-eat-that studies that shouldn't be used to make causal claims.  That changing dietary advice, coupled with a sometimes superior attitude about what people should be eating regardless of cost or taste often turns people off.  Throw all that on top of the large number of booksellers hocking specific diets that claim to cure all our ills, and you've got a recipe for distrust 

Finally, the NYT story mentions the following:

Over the last few years, the academy been criticized from some of its members and health advocates over what they contend are its overly cozy ties to industry. Companies like PepsiCo, Kellogg and ConAgra regularly attend the organization’s big annual meeting, where they make presentations to dietitians, hold seminars and parties and provide free samples of their products.

The implication seems to be that dietitians should be free from connections with industry.  But, that's silly.  It's not necessarily a bad idea for food companies to engage with associations like this.  After all, if the members of the association are doing research relevant to the industry and the foods people are actually eating, then that would be reflected in  the industry showing up and contributing at their meetings.  True, one must be cautious of conflicts of interest, but one must also recognize the power of working with the companies actually selling people food to enact dietary change.