Have you ever looked closely at the list of ingredients on the back of a soda can? I am holding up my Kiwi-Apple Natural Hansen’s Soda in the light and discovering all kinds of new things.

The good news is that there are no preservatives, sodium or caffeine. The bad news is that this so-called “natural soda,” contains “no fruit juice” whatsoever. I still haven’t figured that one out. And further on the bad news front, the list of ingredients includes “corn syrup” and “sugars.” It turns out that because my soda contains “corn syrup” and “sugars” that I am, according to some under the Capitol Dome, at risk of becoming obese. If Senate Senator Ortiz persuades her fellow legislators and Governor Davis to enact SB 1520, we will soon be paying a new tax on each soda drink that we buy. The money generated by the new tax would be used to instruct us on the obvious – drinking too much soda will make us fat.

SB 1520 (Ortiz), the “California Soda Tax Act,” would levy an excise tax of $2 per gallon on soft drink syrup and 21 cents per gallon of soda. Soft drink manufacturers and distributors would pass on these new costs to consumers who would pay a few cents more for each soda drink. Senator Ortiz says in SB 1520 that the bill is “intended to discourage individuals, especially children, from excessive consumption of soda by increasing the price of soda and creating a revenue source to fund programs designed to prevent and treat obesity.” Interestingly enough, drinks with artificial sweeteners are exempt from the new tax because everyone knows that the way to build the Body Beautiful is to drink diet soda instead. Butter, cheese, fast food, potato chips, television, comfortable couches and computer games didn’t make the tax list either. Oops! Maybe I just gave Senator Ortiz a few new ideas for follow-up legislation. Is it too late to recall this column?

Senator Ortiz is right to be concerned about rising levels of obesity in the population. We all should be. It’s a problem. As a nation, we are the fattest people on earth. Approximately 300,000 of our fellow citizens die each year from obesity-related illnesses. It’s not a big mystery on why this is the case. Most of us are eating too much food, watching too much television and not exercising enough. My wife suggests that we write a book entitled, “The Get Off Your Fat Ass Diet.” We could make a million bucks by saying what everyone already knows in their gut.

But statecraft is more than about simply identifying problems in our society. That’s easy. There are problems galore. But policymakers need to put on their thinking caps and take it a step further. A wise leader knows when to use governmental power and at what level – local, state, or federal – to solve a particular societal problem. He also knows that governmental power is fundamentally a blunt and inflexible instrument and when used inappropriately truckloads of taxpayer money is wasted, complex social problems are sometimes made worse, and citizens lose respect for our government and its officials. To preserve the legitimacy of government, leaders should only use their legislative and administrative power to do big and important things that we, as individuals, can’t do ourselves.   Abraham Lincoln said it better, “the legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well for themselves.”

What bothers me most about SB 1520 (Ortiz) is not so much the proposed two-penny tax on soda, but the idea that we should be held responsible for our own personal behavior and that we need a new state government program to show up the light. It essentially says that The Powers that Be, the new elite, need to “educate” the benighted and plodding masses. I strenuously object when politicians try to turn us from the noble appellation of “citizen” to “children.”

I don’t think that a few television commercials, designed by the government and funded by the soda tax, about the perils of soda pop, amid a sea of other commercials that urge us to buy surgery stuff by the case, is going to persuade the average couch potato to drop the nachos and soda and head out the door and hike a big mountain. I don’t think that using, as proposed by SB 1520, the soda tax money to hire and station nutrition experts in our hospitals at the same time our legislators are cutting reimbursement rates to physicians and hospitals are the right priorities. And of course, not a penny of the proposed soda tax revenue generated by SB 1520 would be used toward closing the huge $17.5 billion state budget deficit.

When government grows larger at the same time that is purpose becomes smaller, we have a “Nanny Government” that no longer commands the respect of its citizens.   It doesn’t have to be this way. We can hold school boards accountable when they vote to sprinkle school campuses with candy and soda vending machines to raise money to pay non-teaching personnel. We can make sure that little Johnny and Sally eat nutritious meals and spend more time on the soccer field than in front of the television or computer screen.

We can also petition our city council members to develop a proactive sidewalk building policy so that we can create an enjoyable and safe walking town. When we take control of our lives and become active in shaping government policy we are more deserving of the noble title of “citizen.”

March 14, 2002

Postscript: SB 1520 failed passage in policy committee.