LOCAL PERSPECTIVE | Should Local Voters Try to Regulate Fuels That Make Us Sick?
by Seth Cagin
Oct 12, 2013 | 3900 views | 8 8 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sugar is a fuel for our bodies but too much of it makes us sick. Carbon-based fuels power modern society but using too much of them makes our planet sick. Both obesity and diabetes for individuals and global warming for the planet impose almost incalculable social costs. Both are potentially fatal.

Next month, voters in tiny Telluride and San Miguel County will decide whether a small community should try to do anything to moderate the use of either form of potentially deadly energy by using taxing authority. Question 2A on the Telluride town ballot would impose a tax on sugary beverages, with the revenues, perhaps $200,000 annually, to fund programs to support physical fitness programs in local schools.

Question 1A on the county ballot would impose a one percent tax on county utility bills, with the estimated revenues of between $150,000 and $170,000 per year to go to the county’s Greenhouse gas reduction programs.

This basic strategy – to tax a harmful product and use the revenues to mitigate the damage the product causes to society – is nothing new. There have been federal, state and local taxes on alcohol and tobacco for decades. Philosophically speaking, if society-at-large has to pick up a big part of the tab caused by a product, then surely society has the right to try to regulate the costly behaviors and raise money to help offset the costs, even if doing so infringes on the freedom of individuals.

Libertarians might argue that individual freedom trumps social costs and such regulations are not reasonable. But they’ve lost that argument when it comes to tobacco, for example, and there is no reason to think that taxing sugar and/or carbon because they are harmful will not someday be considered just as reasonable as tobacco taxes. We might wonder where it will end. Will the nanny state someday regulate mountaineering because outdoor adventurers risk injuries that tax all of us when they need to be rescued or end up in an emergency room? In response to that concern about creeping regulation, I would argue that each effort at restricting products or behaviors should be considered on its merits.

So there are, for me, three questions facing voters in Telluride and San Miguel County. First, are sugar and/or carbon so costly to society that they should be regulated even though such regulations will impose some degree of hardship or inconvenience on individuals and businesses? Second, recognizing that overconsumption of sugar and carbon are global problems, does it make sense for a very small community to try to address them? Even knowing that to do so will have trivial impact on the societal problem and is therefore largely a symbolic gesture? And third, are the specific regulations on the ballot, as drafted, workable?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, then why vote no?

The scientific evidence that both sugar and carbon are toxic substances when used in excess is irrefutable. Yes, there are deniers who can cite industry-funded pseudo-scientific studies, but that is what they are: deniers in a state of denial. Up against the self-interest and power of the titanic beverage and energy industries, societies have no choice but to regulate to save themselves from dangerous products. Tax sugar and carbon? Yes.

Of course, to tax sugar and carbon here in the Western San Juans will have only the slightest impact on the global damage being done by excess sugar and carbon consumption. But every social movement has to start somewhere, somehow, and every effort by individuals or a small community to take some measure of control over industrial heedlessness constitutes a step forward. The longest journey starts with the first step, and that is precisely why Telluride has become a battleground on the sugar tax: both proponents and opponents are being supported by outside forces. Would-be sugar regulators are looking for a toehold somewhere and see Telluride as a potential starting point for a campaign that might go national and global. Businesses that profit from sugar are fighting back precisely to nip any such movement in the bud and to avoid the fate of tobacco companies.

Finally, is either the proposed utility tax in San Miguel County or the proposed sugar tax in Telluride so badly drafted that its enforcement would be onerous for individuals or businesses? While the utility tax seems very straightforward, both simple to understand and collect, retailers in Telluride are very concerned that they will be unduly burdened by having to collect and remit the sugar tax.

Therefore, my conclusions: Yes on the utility tax, because every tiny step away from carbon-based fuels is a step in the right direction, and a single step, multiplied by a hundred, and then a thousand, and ultimately millions of small steps is precisely how the world will finally stop burning carbon. San Miguel County can take easily afford to take this small step.

And I’m leaning yes on sugar, too, because Telluride is precisely the right laboratory for a new kind of tax. Telluride is small enough that technical problems in how a tax on sugary beverages is calculated and collected can be worked out quickly, making it understandable why Telluride has become a testing ground for national interests on both sides of the issue.

(Start taxing sugar in a small test market like Telluride to prove it can work? Or stop the movement to tax sugar before it can be proven in a small test market like Telluride?)

I sympathize with Telluride retailers and restaurants who will have a new regulatory burden to manage if the sugar tax is approved and may lose some money from the sale of sugary beverages since consumers can just buy those beverages somewhere else if they find the tax prohibitive. But if excessive sugar consumption is both a burden on society and a life-or-death matter, and I believe it is both, then sooner or later, somehow by someone, the hassles simply must be borne.

Telluride can afford to lead on this one, too.
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October 15, 2013
Interesting discussion.

I don't think that it is a matter of "us" fighting corporations. Corporations offer products, and we can choose whether we want them or not.

Let us agree that the goal of reducing self-inflicted obesity is laudable. The question, then, is how achieve that goal?

Obesity in both adults and children is a product of, to keep it simple, sugar, fat, and salt. I'll not talk of exercise and the amounts of these three products consumed. Sugar, fat and salt. Each of these things are addictive, i.e., the more you eat of them, the more you want to eat more.

Thus, a campaign to reduce obesity must address all three. Addressing only one misses the point. The proposed initiative thus misses the point because t does not suggest a comprehensive solutions. One can cut down on sugar, but obesity will still occur. The initiative is further inadequate in scope--if the goal is to reduce obesity--because children (over)consume vast amounts of sugar from non-beverage sources: halowe'en candy, pancake syrup, doughnuts, cup cakes, etc. etc. It is not sufficient, I think, to merely say, "Well, we have to start somewhere." No, if we are serious we have to start with an action that actually matches the scope of the issue.

So I believe that the initiative is of little use because of its serious deficiency of scope: it does not address fats and salt, and it does not address the vast array of sugar sources other than "sugary beverages."

I believe, also, that taxing people who consume sugary beverages is the wrong method, the wrong tool in this matter. It elevates what is fundamentally a matter of individual and family practices to a matter of government social engineering and the imposition of choice. What better tools might exist, one might ask?

Education, education, education, and the removal of significant amounts of sugar, fat, and salt from venues in which government acts as sponsor: school, school-based athletic events. Other organizations can pitch in too: Art Walk vendors, our festivals, restaurants -- by deciding themselves to reduce sugar, fats, and salt. Of course, restaurant cooks have known for a long time that these items are the very things that make food taste good, so they are routinely overused by cooks whose culinary skills are limited. And w have to mention parents, and other responsible adults -- who themselves may be addicted to sugar, fat, and salt -- who have the most immediate and appropriate influence over what children consume. Do we really want to turn to government taxing authority to do the job that parents MUST play?

progressives in telluride sometimes become frustrated when the common people don't "get" what they "should" be doing. The temptation is always there to turn to government's coercive power to "make" the people do what is good for them, to make them do what they otherwise will not. Education may be too time- and energy-consuming for well-meaning activists. It may seem quicker and easier to get government to do the job.

But is this wise? People do know how to resist coercion. Shouldn't the activists (of which I am often one) instead submit themselves to the discipline of education, and win adherents one-by one through the arts of friendly, intelligent, and informed persuasion? Is any approach other than this not a betrayal of the fundamental progressive impulse?
October 14, 2013

Having been raised in telluride and my kid too,our very active life style LETS have a hot chocolate after skiing or hockey. If anyone should be able to enjoy a little sugar it's us !

It would be nice to think that this tax or a utility tax would put a dent in ANY industry,s bottom line ,but it will not.

The sugar industry will not notice expensive groceries in telluride,they already are expensive. Most parents do not live or shop in Telluride ,so whom are we really taxing ?the tax does not punish the people it's supposed to effect.

And making utilities more expensive, with NO EARMARK, is irresponsible. They could use it for ANYTHING,bonuses for commissioners ,why not ? The EXTRA dollars will be taken for some future unknown need ?

Spending one dollar on a pollution source equals one dollar of pollution. Spending a second dollar and declare that it OFFSETS the first dollar is fantasy !there is no OFFSET if one dollar of pollution turned into more expensive two dollars of pollution, the pollution is there and now more expensive.

It's expensive and dangerous to live in the mountains,taxing ourselves more,so we can feel the dent in the pollution problem ,or the sugar industry is a silly waste of time.

George I've been in Denver lately too, if one says I'm from Telluride they say tellu what ? Where is that ? Can you spell that ? What state is that in ?I,ve been in colorado my whole life ,never heard of it !its a ski area ?

There is no sugar ounce counting machines. Cash registers are set for liquor,tobacco,state ,town , county sales tax by percentage ,that's managable.

Do we really need a new governmental sugar counter posistion?
October 12, 2013
Seth, good discussion. I'm about as much of a tax-and-spend liberal as there is around here, coming from a Wisconsin progressive Democrat upbringing.

But "only through our government can we push back against corporate practices"? Really?? What about the old notion of voting with our pocketbooks? What about simply choosing to not buy products that're bad for us? What about parents demonstrating, and explaining, healthy choices to their kids?

My concept's akin to how I feel about what I read this week, about the Town possibly creating a no-cell-phones zone around the elementary school .... what if, instead, parents chose to not use their phones as they drive junior to school? If the parent's always on the phone while driving, the child will grow up taking that for normal, reasonable behavior (it's not).

October 13, 2013
I think it's a good discussion, too, but so far it's just you and me and George. Perhaps nobody else is reading?

Again, I understand why you put the focus on individual responsibility, and we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves with respect to our own health and habits and the health and habits of our children.

The issue here is that when people don't take personal responsibility, either because they don't share the view that the issue is real or are simply irresponsible, the costs are borne by all of us in the form of overall high health care costs. In addition to that, there is a question of consumer safety. There are countless examples where government steps in to warn or regulate or tax dangerous products.

In the case of sugar, it's not only unsafe but addictive and hidden in all sorts of foods. It is also marketed aggressively to children.

And here's another point I forgot to make in my original commentary. Not only do we not regulate or tax sugar, we actually SUBSIDIZE it through price guarantees and import restrictions that cost consumers an estimated $2 billion a year and imposes huge environmental costs because so much of it is farmed where it pollutes the Everglades.

This is a side issue inasmuch as it relates to the proposed Telluride sugar tax. But it does suggest that to fight back as individuals by not consuming sugar is not nearly enough to address the problem.
October 12, 2013
I'm in Denver and it's interesting to hear people's comments about the soda tax proposal in Telluride. We look like a town that fully embraces pot sales but not pop sales. Pot makes you want something sweet like pop! One of my concerns is just how dysfunctional this makes Telluride look to the outside world. The logic about government saving us from ourselves...........where does that end. It's time to say no to more government intervention into our lives. This has nothing to do with 'big business', just personal responsibility.

Should we tax Prius's because drivers are more likely to be injured in a car crash? That indirectly affects all of us too.

The energy tax is completely insensitive to the poor in our county. This tax proposal doesn't even give the specifics of how the proceeds with be spent. I don't trust 'big government' any more that 'big business'.

Both of the tax proposals continue to show the outside world how self absorbed and self righteous we look and insensitive to the poor.

The more and more we ask government to solve our problems as a society the less our children will learn personal responsibility. Why should they? Government will tell us how to live our lives.
October 12, 2013
You make strong arguments, George. I am very sensitive to the argument: "Where does it end?" And also to your observation that Big Covernment is as worrisome as Big Business. I would like to point out that pot in Telluride (and elsewhere in Colorado) is both highly regulated and highly taxed, precisely to curb the use of it and raise money to pay for its impacts. I haven't heard anyone argue that pot should be legal and unregulated, the way sugar is.
October 12, 2013
Yes, Seth, Telluride can afford to lead on this one, on the too-much-sugar issue.

You & Marta managed to raise a son who's not fat, not diabetic as far as I know, is well-rounded and a fine athlete. And other Telluride parents can do the same. It's just not necessary to create a tax to attempt to control kids' behavior, to replace too much texting & playing of video games with more exercise.

As you say yourself, those sugary beverages, those devilish sodas and cases of blue "sports" drinks, can easily be bought -- by the parents in most instances -- in other towns, so just how effective might this tax be? Even if it were a good idea?

Why don't the proponents of this tax, both local & otherwise, spend the considerable sums they're spending on educating kids & parents, rather than on this campaign?
October 12, 2013
Hey Jim, thanks for your kind words about my son! I don't see this as an issue about parenting or controlling kids' behavior so much as an issue of public health and health care costs borne by all of us collectively. And also about corporate power and responsibility. Only through our government can we push back against corporate practices that cost us both individually and societally. Also, I recognize that there are devilish details, about what to tax and how much to tax it. Which is precisely why Telluride might be a good laboratory for it.

Having said that, I fully agree that this is not an easy issue and respect the argument that the proposed tax is too symbolic and not effective enough to be worth the cost of testing it.