Rethinking Healthcare

Do not tax Coke, tax corn syrup instead

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Corn syrup from ADM put the American sweet tooth into overdrive. Many of the roughly 300 extra calories we consume each day, compared to a few decades ago, come from products containing corn syrup. Coca-Cola is not the villain here. ADM is.

A few idealistic health researchers want to tax sugary soft drinks and they are getting a hearing in Washington.

Here in Atlanta, of course, we're outraged. Tax Coca-Cola? You may have built your city on rock and roll, but we built this city on Coke and a smile.

Atlanta has no coast, no river port, no big store of natural resources. The reason this city exists is because The Coca-Cola Co. willed it into being.

Who you think gave you Santa Claus, sonny? Haddon Sundblom probably drew that twinkle in his eye with Rhett Butler in mind. Fiddle dee-dee indeed. You can have my Coca-Cola when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

In fact I think this tax is misdirected. You will note in the picture above, taken from The Coca-Cola Co. Web site, that Santa is holding a 6 1/2 ounce bottle. That's the only way Coke was sold until the 1950s. It was an affordable luxury, not a staple, and it's still priced that way. Let's face it $1.50 for a bottle of sugary water is not really a bargain.

What changed, in our time, can be summed up in two words. Corn syrup. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) first began making high fructose corn syrup in the mid-1970s, and it has transformed America, literally.

Today, in fact, we already have a sugar tax. It's a tariff on imports of cane sugar, maintained to protect a few Florida growers, but also to protect ADM. The difference in taste between corn syrup and cane sugar is slight, but it's enough to have created a gray market for Mexican Coca-Cola, which is sweetened with cane.

Corn syrup from ADM put the American sweet tooth into overdrive. Many of the roughly 300 extra calories we consume each day, compared to a few decades ago, come from soft drinks, and many of the rest come from other products containing corn syrup. If you don't burn off those calories you gain weight. We gain weight.

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent is leading the fight against a soft drinks tax, and I think he's right to do so. Because the problem isn't Coca-Cola. The problem is corn syrup.

What if, instead of taxing soft drinks, we just put a tax on corn syrup, so its price would be equal to that of cane sugar? I know just saying this will send ADM into a tizzy, but at least we would be targeting the right villain.

And maybe we can find an Informant! If the corn syrup tax bandwagon gets rolling I'm certain Matt Damon would do some public service ads for the good guys.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure