Editorial: Where is the reasoned discourse on policy topics?

Published on Friday, 19 May 2017 12:43 - Written by

If the late 20th Century was the Information Age, could we be in a Post-Knowledge Era? That’s certainly the feeling conveyed by some of the public policy discussions taking place now.

For example, here’s Caroline Apovian, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, speaking about a proposed soda tax in the state of Massachusetts.

“We regulate alcohol,” she says. “We do not sell alcohol to children. We tax it and you can’t drink while you are working.”

And soda, she says, should be treated the same way - because of its long-health effects.

“There is absolutely no nutritional value to sugar-sweetened beverages whatsoever,” Apovian says. “Your brain doesn’t register those calories, because it’s liquid. You overeat that day by whatever those calories were.”

But of course, there’s no real comparison there. Soda is not alcohol, which has short-term effects as well as long-term. Dr Pepper is not Jack Daniels. That’s a flawed analogy by any standard - and it’s particularly troubling when it’s made by a professor at a top medical school.

Yet this is the tone of our public policy debates today. Disaster and doom are imminent, everything is unprecedented and nobody is in the clear. It’s all hype and hyperbole.

Where is the reasoned debate? Where are the measured tones and considered opinions?

Donald Trump is not a cause of the current lack of civility in political discourse, but he’s certainly a symptom of it.

That’s why it’s important to bring back reasoned, knowledge-based debate.

Let’s take that Massachusetts soda tax, for example. There are good reasons to consider the public health consequences of sugary drinks.

“According to the CDC, roughly half of American adults consume at least one sugary drink per day,” Boston magazine reports, writing about the bill. “Consumption is slowing, however, with more and more people choosing sugar-free drinks such as seltzer. And when a soda tax passed in Berkeley, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages dropped there by 21 percent, according to the American Public Health Association.”

It’s also true, as one public health expert cited, poor diet is the biggest cause of poor health outcomes in the United States.

But there are also arguments against a soda tax. In Philadelphia, for example, the soda tax killed jobs.

“PepsiCo Inc. said on Wednesday it would cut 80 to 100 jobs in Philadelphia as the city’s new sugar-sweetened beverage tax hurts demand for its products,” the Reuters news agency reports. “Philadelphia imposed a tax of 1.5 cent per ounce on sugary and diet drinks to combat rising obesity and diabetes in the city. The tax became effective on Jan. 1. PepsiCo’s beverage sales fell 40 percent in the city because of the tax, company spokesman Dave DeCecco told Reuters in an email.”

And in March, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Two months into the city's sweetened-beverage tax, supermarkets and distributors are reporting a 30 percent to 50 percent drop in beverage sales and are planning for layoffs.”

These are real issues. So let’s have reasonable discussions about them, without the hyperbole.