By CARL SAMPSON
First there was Weight Watchers, then Nutri-System and Jenny Craig. Then there was the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet and even the $3-a-day at Burger King Diet.
In one very real way, all of them were far more effective than a new "diet" that the USDA's Economic Research Service has cooked up. Economists there have sharpened their pencils and determined that if only the federal government would levy a 20 percent tax on soda pop and other drinks sweetened with sugar or corn syrup we would all be skinnier.
Of all the ways to lose weight, paying a tax on sugar has got to be the single worst idea. Any nutritionist will tell you that losing weight is a simple exercise in biology. To lose weight a person has to burn more calories than he eats. There are other factors, including metabolism, stress and the form those calories are in, but the bottom line remains the same.
We already have empirical evidence that taxes do precious little to stop the use of unhealthful substances. Perhaps nothing is taxed more than cigarettes. A pack of cigarettes, which cost 25 cents in the 1960s, now costs $4.50 to $5. In spite of that increase in cost, primarily due to federal and state tax increases, 47.1 million Americans -- about 20 percent of all adults -- still smoke.
Judging from that experience, it's difficult to see how jacking up the cost of a soda pop will do anything other than make consumers' wallets thinner.
The ERS economists figure that a 20 percent tax would make Americans 3.8 to 4.5 pounds lighter each year. But they also acknowledge a flaw in their reasoning. About half of all soda pop is consumed away from home, much of it at restaurants that offer free refills. This means a soda pop tax would be virtually meaningless unless the federal government also banned free refills.
Which brings us to this question: If the federal bureaucrats want to tell us what to drink, what will stop them from telling us what to eat, too? We've already seen the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program kick potatoes off the list of recommended foods. Why? Because they are too popular and people buy them anyway.
Come to think of it, why doesn't the federal government just cut to the chase and simply tax Americans who are fat? We could all weigh in every April 15 when we file our income taxes and pay for that extra flab.
And here's another question for those who believe another tax is the answer to all that ails us: Where, exactly, would that money end up? Would it go toward more bailouts for Wall Street fat cats -- sorry, bad choice of words there -- or would it go toward more pork-barrel spending?
First lady Michelle Obama got it right last winter when she helped introduce the Let's Move initiative. Alarmed that the childhood obesity rate has tripled in the past 30 years and that kids were spending an average of 7.5 hours a day planted in front of the television or playing computer games, she and other leaders in the nutrition movement came up with a plan for getting kids to eat more healthfully and be more active. She also is working with Congress to improve the federal school lunch program.
That makes sense. Taxing soda pop -- or any other food or drink -- doesn't.
A big part of any effort to get Americans shaped up is to get children -- and their parents -- to understand that eating healthfully and remaining active will lead to a longer and more fulfilling life.
To do that will take a lot of education, but it primarily will require people to take responsibility for themselves and their health.
If people want to find the culprit who's making them fat, all they need to do is look in the mirror.