Who are the Soda Tax Baptists and Bootleggers?

That is a question asked by Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle in an article over at  They write of the traditional Baptist and Bootlegger scenario where one group with the moral high ground gives cover to another group with entirely different motives:

Why “bootleggers and Baptists”? Recall that both historically supported laws that shut down liquor stores on Sunday, but for entirely different reasons. Taking the moral high ground, the Baptists fervently hoped to see a decline in alcohol consumption. Just as fervently, the bootleggers longed to eliminate competition at least for one day a week. Together, they formed a powerful duo.

They then go on to discuss the various calls for soda taxes.  But, they apparently only see Baptists and no bootleggers.

The “Baptist” part of the story is clear cut. Long-time support for such excise taxes comes from the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the NAACP. These and other organizations see sweet drinks as a major detriment to American health and well-being that feeds our skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates.


But where are the bootleggers? If we probe a wee bit deeper, we may discover why there is no bootlegger/Baptist success story for taxing away sugary drink consumption. Bootleggers are generally associated with producing substitutes for the highly-taxed or regulated item. For example, U.S. producers of natural gas love it when the Environmental Protection Agency places heavy restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

Because Coca-Cola and other soda manufacturers also sell diet drinks, juices, water, and other non-taxed alternatives, they apparently don't have an incentive to be "bootleggers", and thus Smith and Yandle conclude there are none, which is why they argue that soda taxes haven't gotten far politically.

In part they're right.  But, I think they're missing an all together different sort of "bootlegger" in the story.  Some baptists are bootleggers: they're one and the same.   

Yes, non-profits, public health advocates, academics, and bureaucrats often make appeals that seem virtuous and Baptist-like.  But, often their motives are less than altruistic.  

Consider the fact that almost every call for soda or fat taxes also suggests that the tax receipts should be spent on activities that would directly or indirectly benefit said groups.  Here for example, is Mark Bittman in the New York Times

The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

A New York Assemblyman, arguing for a statewide fat tax said the proposal should go foward

as long as the revenue is directly targeted and used to address a healthy lifestyle, and not to fill a budget gap

Yes, these programs might benefit people's health.  But, look at who else the earmarks also help.  Who will be paid to do the education, promotion, monitoring, etc.?  Moreover, the federal government already spends millions of dollars every year on dietary and obesity research, and surely many academics would benefit from increased budgets for research and education grants on obesity, nutrition, and health care.

I'm not necessarily saying this sort of research or education shouldn't be done, but what I am saying is that many of the Baptists in this case also have (perhaps not even self conscious) bootlegger-type motives.  As a result, its often hard to have thoughtful discussions about the economic justifications (or lack thereof) of fat taxes.  I think it was Upton Sinclair who said

It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.