When potato chips are outlawed, only outlaws will have chips.

The conviction that dangerous things should be regulated for the good of the masses is not new. In this time and place, it mostly takes the form of stern warnings, as on cigarette packs and those signs in bars and near hot tubs that warn pregnant women to back off.

Every few years some lawmaker re-launches the argument that food stamp recipients should have more restrictions on their purchases. The sight of some single mom with a herd of kids handing over her tax-supported food card for bags of chips is a knife to the heart of these politicos. Not one of whom has waited in line to pay $1.79 for a single bell pepper in recent memory.

The idea that junk food should be taxed is the latest buzz. This meets with predictable outrage from people like me who think telling folks  what they can eat is a civil-rights violation. (Yes, the fact that this puts me alongside a lot of right-wing and tea-party morons who hate government troubles me.)

But this notion is not going to disappear, especially with sharp guys like the New York Times writer Mark Bittman is talking it up. This respected  food writer constructs a good case with actual stats: Want to keep health care costs down? Tax the crap out of sugar-laden soda, and boom — billions saved.

He’s right, but wrong.

It would save a pile if we could make it harder for people to eat and drink bad stuff. The flaw in this plan is that the government would be in charge of enforcement. Do I need to list the reasons why that is a lame idea? I thought not.

If we’re serious about this,  the government does have a role: Give tax breaks to companies that retool their factories from soda to–oh, I don’t know–maybe whole wheat crackers in the shape of Coke bottles. Whatever. The lobby for junk food/drink is too strong to allow a meaningful tax to survive the legislative process.

Then make it easier and cheaper for folks to buy healthy food. That’s different than a tax.

Say a portion of my taxes went to a local nonprofit. The agency could oversee fresh food kiosks located all over the place, especially near transit stops. If I can buy a bag of salad greens and a sweet potato when I get off the bus or train, I’m gonna do it. Especially if the prices are reasonable and they take food debit cards.

There’s plenty of expertise out there to help the government get rolling. The smooth network of folks that sell weed and pills at the transit stations in my city have the distribution details all worked out.

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