Section: Perspective,  Page: B4

Date: Sunday, March 28, 2010

The issue:

New York weighs a tax on sugared beverages.

The Stakes:

A state that needs money and a society that needs to lose weight have a smart option.

It's easy to reject a soda tax, as the Legislature did last week. Lots of people like soda. They hate taxes. And $3 million in lobbying by the soda industry makes a populist position go down even easier.

The trouble is, this tax is the smart thing to do for a state desperately in need of spending cuts and more revenue. In the long run, a soda tax accomplishes both.

Yes, it would be easy to say, just cut spending.

The problem is, New York has a deficit of more than $9 billion, and once federal stimulus money dries up, the imbalance will surpass $13 billion. Cuts alone won't close a gap that large. For some perspective, the hugely unpopular plan to close 57 parks and historic sites would save only $15 million or so.

This tax would raise an estimated $450 million the first year, and $1 billion a year after that.

It would be easy, too, to say that the state has no business trying to influence people's behavior.

The fact, though, is that government influences our behavior all the time, and, moreover, we expect it to. That's why we have things like speed limits, traffic lights, mandatory car insurance, and, for that matter, laws.

Even so, it would be easy to say, drinking soda and other sugared beverages is a personal choice. This is about freedom.

But the reality is, some behaviors cost us all. Remember, the state spends some $45 billion on Medicaid alone, and subsidizes other health programs. And millions of New Yorkers are covered by private health insurance. Some behaviors -- not wearing a seat belt or motorcycle helmet, driving drunk or smoking -- have so clearly been linked to higher medical and insurance costs that we've agreed they should be discouraged through laws or taxes. Most bottles and cans have a five-cent deposit to conserve landfill space and discourage litter. Tobacco taxes help offset the cost society bears for those who don't quit.

The same common sense is behind the soda tax. More than any behavior, increased consumption of sugared beverages has paralleled the rise in obesity in America, a problem linked to billions of dollars in higher health care spending. And if you don't want to pay the extra penny an ounce, you have the option of drinking something better for you.

Still, it would be easy to say, isn't this a slippery slope? What's next? Pizza? The all-American hamburger and milkshake?

To that argument, we say, let's take this one battle at a time. As for this one, proponents of the soda tax clearly win on the merits.

So we don't take the easy way out. We endorse the soda tax, and urge lawmakers to make the hard choice, too.