by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Because nothing is as immortal as a temporary government program, the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW), a creature of the stimulus, was folded into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka Obamacare. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), working through CPPW, disbursed money to 25 states to fight, among other things, the scourge of soda pop.
In Cook County, Ill., according to an official report, recipients using some of a $16 million CDC grant “educated policymakers on link between SSBs [sugar sweetened beverages] and obesity, economic impact of an SSB tax, and importance of investing revenue into prevention.” According to a Philadelphia city website, a $15 million CDC grant funded efforts to “campaign” for a “two-cent per ounce excise tax” on SSBs. In California, an official report says a $2.2 million CDC grant for obesity prevention funded “training for grantees on media advocacy” against SSBs. A New York report says a $3 million grant was used to “educate leaders and decision-makers about, and promote the effective implementation of … a tax to substantially increase the price of beverages containing caloric sweetener.” The Rhode Island Department of Health used a $3 million grant for “educating key decision-makers to serve as champions of specific … pricing and procurement strategies to reduce consumption of” SSBs. In government-speak, “educating” is synonymous with “lobbying.”
Clearly some of the $230 million in CDC/CPPW anti-obesity grants was spent in violation of the law, which prohibits the use of federal funds “to influence in any manner … an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation.” But leaving legality aside, is such “nutrition activism” effective?
Not according to Michael L. Marlow, economics professor at California Polytechnic State University, and Sherzod Abdukadirov of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Writing in Regulation quarterly (“Can Behavioral Economics Combat Obesity?”), a publication of the libertarian Cato Institute, they powerfully question the assumptions underlying paternalistic policies such as using taxes to nudge individuals to make consumption choices that serve their real but unrecognized interests — e.g., drinking fewer SSBs.