Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Sports drinks and Boulder

Boulder's sugary beverage tax, which took effect on July 1, 2017, is misguided. Stupid, actually. Not necessarily the entire concept, but the blunt-force way in which it was applied.

First, I'll disclose that I never, ever buy sweetened beverages. Ever. That way, on the extremely rare occasions I do buy these products, I can project both righteousness and detachment when I complain about pertinent policies.

Boulder charges a flat 2 cents per fluid ounce on sweetened drinks starting at a concentration of 5 g per 12 fl oz. This is next to nothing. It's about 2/3 of the sugar concentration of G2 Gatorade, and even regular Gatorade is dilute compared to soda. Mountain Dew has 46 grams per 12 fl oz.

Gatorade is treated the same as Sunkist orange soda. Sports drinks, which may be largely hype but at least contain some electrolytes, are taxed. A half-gallon of Bailey's Irish Cream, an adult beverage, is not (at least not the sugar portion).

Here's the even better thing: If you buy a liquid with so much plain refined sugar in it that it no longer appears to be a beverage, like coffee creamer, it's exempt, even if the health risks the city is purportedly trying to avert are exactly the same. Alcoholic beverage mixers, and sweet alcoholic beverages themselves, are also exempt.

Anyone who has attended a city council meeting here, and watched its august members barely pretend to give a shit what random people in the audience have to say, cannot be surprised by any of this.

Those belonging to the city council almost certainly don't buy much soda, but I bet they purchase plenty of mixers. I would also guess that they are among the countless local drones who invariably choose an organic or gluten-free version of a product if one is available, even if they could not possibly explain even in superficial terms why this is supposedly better for them. (I'm excluding consumers who buy organic products to support local farmers and those with legitimate issues of gluten sensitivity.) Maybe everyone who does this should be taxed an extra 10% on all purchases of this stuff. Call it a "Woo and Credulity Tax" or some such. The money raised could then be used to install turret guns all over the city to take out skateboarders and cyclists who use sidewalks when the roads alongside have special lanes for this or are free of cars. (Relax. I mean paintball turret guns. Big ones.)

One year after its implementation, plenty of city residents remain opposed to this tax, although their argument is somewhat quixotic: The tax has actually outperformed expectations ($5.2 million in actual revenue vs. the $3.8 million projected), and its opponents' response is that if it hasn't failed to dissuade people from drinking these drinks, as its supporters predicted it would.

I think that's a bad counter-argument for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is: Not all sugary beverages are equally bad (or bad at all) and not all people suffer the same effects of individual sweetened concoctions. This is also what makes the tax proponents' argument bad, too. The law is simply a foolish law because "People should be using less of this for health reasons" is not merely unproven in this instance, but provably false. People shouldn't be using "These drinks are bad, what should we do about it?" as a starting point.

One of my friends from New Mexico observes, "Last year, Santa Fe tried to pass a tax that was literally identical to the one you all have, save for changing the city name. It went down in flames, since the disparity in what was or wasn't taxed was very easy to spin as rich people telling poor people what to consume.

"The crowning bit of fuckery was that the tax was intended to fund a citywide childcare program, but it neglected to account for funding after tax revenue inevitably dropped."

I will now engage in some informed speculation. When a tax like this one becomes effective only in a single municipality, versus a whole state or county, it has to have a big impact on merchants within the municipality borders. When the cost of a given amount of soda doubles or almost triples (a 2L of Kroger brand soda used to be about $0.69, but the tax adds another $1.34 to this), people are not going to overlook this and will simply stop at a convenience store in Louisville or Broomfield or someplace outside Boulder's 25-square-mile land patch.

In the last year, I have seen convenience stores raise prices of other goods considerably, especially ones with relatively inelastic demand like coffee (i.e., most people who are going to waste money on convenience-store coffee, like me, sorta ignore fairly serious increases in price, like $1.89 vs. $1.29 for a 24-ounce). And that brings up another issue -- that shit in the cappuccino machines next to regular coffee isn't taxed and the sugar (and fat) content is astronomical in those products.

If I decided I could not afford simple sugar but wanted it in solution, I would just take my plastic Dunkin' Donuts cup to convenience stores, load it with about 24 ounces of creamer, put the cover back on, and pay the refill price for a cup of coffee (about $1.08 with tax). Actually, the more I type, the better idea this actually seems for getting free coffee creamer, and further screwing the same Boulder stores whose business I am ostensibly concerned about here. I need a huge woot woot.

In November, we residents get to vote on whether the $1.4 million surplus should be returned to the beverage distributors or whether it should be put into the same programs the rest of the revenue's going toward. I know what I think should be done, and I also think I know how this place will vote Again, I am in favor of turret guns on traffic standards and other places people can't easily mess with them, programmed to fire 762 mm shells at errant skateboarders and other rogue quasi-commuters, so I would like to see some real funding for this venture. As usual, I will get up there at an official town gathering with in a diaper with dyed green hair and carrying a large string bass of some sort or perhaps a bassoon, and when I advance these ideas, no one will pay much attention.

In closing, the title was a bait-and-switch and I'm sorry you fell for it, but if you read this far anyway, it must have all worked out.

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