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All Soda Refills Should Be Free

Let’s load up the menfolk in a pickup truck and head to Maryland to make a citizen’s arrest, ya’ll. A woman there has committed one of the most egregious acts against humanity known to man. Her crime? Crawling through an open drive-thru window at a McDonald’s to get a free soda refill. Police have asked the public to help identify her and make sure soda justice is served. If we don’t, consider the alternative: billion-dollar corporations like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola might lose a few bucks.

The problem is rampant, if news reports are to be believed. In November of 2016, an 18-year-old student named Justice Falade stole a soft drink refill from the University of Texas, San Antonio campus. When a worker tried to force him to pay, Falade assaulted him and was charged with a first-degree felony — aggravated robbery as a result. The assault is, of course, stupid, but stealing a refill from a soda machine ranks on the spectrum of egregiousness as about as bad as taking a few extra ketchup packets. In other words, fuck soda, and fuck the people who sell it, and fuck the forces willing to waste public resources prosecuting people who go up to a soda fountain and scam a Sprite.

In April of 2016, 18-year-old Cody Morris and his friends ordered three large waters at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Arkansas, but then dumped the waters out and went inside and filled the cups with soda. A manager decided to be some kind of soda superhero and bust them. He then followed them outside and literally blocked their car from leaving. The comedy of errors that ensued is the stuff of slapstick. The trio backed up, hitting the manager. Then the manager was hit again when he reached into the ignition to try to remove the keys. I don’t know who I feel the sorriest for, but I’ll give you a hint: It’s not any of the stockholders of Coca-Cola.

In 2014, a construction worker named Christopher Lewis was charged with a federal fine of $525 for stealing a free refill of soda at the VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. He neglected to pay the $0.89 charge for a refill and was charged with stealing “government property.” The chief of police, who happened to be in line at the time, caught him doing it and busted that illegal act wide open. Lewis tried to pay the fee immediately, saying he didn’t realize it wasn’t free, but was refused. He got exactly what he deserved for scamming $0.89, right? He lost his job and was banned from the premises. The upside to this story — if there is one — is that they reviewed the case and decided to let Lewis off with a citation. He still lost his job.

Most of the news stories that cover these crimes treat them on par with your average stupid criminal story, something we might read from another “Florida man” headline of a bumbling meth head who tried to have sex with an alligator in a mall, or whatever. In the USA Today story about Morris and his pals, the writer takes the time to smugly note that a “a large soda at McDonald’s costs only $1.49 and comes with free refills,” as if to suggest that no one can justify lifting something that costs little more than a dollar.

Yet no one thinks to ask whether soda itself is liquid evil incarnate; why this particular demographic is always trying to scam them for free; or that maybe that charging for refills is criminal too. Furthermore, the work of busting these alleged criminals tends to fall on fast-food managers who are hardly paid a living wage; the average manager at a McDonald’s in Arkansas makes about $10 an hour. I really want that guy chasing down a teenager and trying to catapult himself into his car to grab the keys from the ignition — don’t you?

So perhaps the real question is not why we fuck over the poor and the working class in this country, or why the black and/or poor teenagers and black and/or poor women who are typically the criminals in these stories are so stupid for stealing sodas, but why we charge for refills in the first place. We should either ban soda altogether or force corporations to absorb the cost of poisoning us. What we should learn to do is look the other way when someone sneaks a water cup and loads up on a soda.

Hear me out. Soda profits are among the most slam-dunk money you can make in this capitalist world. Soda is widely known to have the highest profit margin of any item on a fast food or restaurant menu. McDonald’s alone is said to sell more Coca-Cola than anyone else in the world. In 2001, the cost of that bag of syrup set them back $4.25 a gallon, and a large soda — also $1.49 at that time — contains about 12 cents of syrup.

What’s more, soda ads target black and Hispanic kids disproportionately. Poorer minorities see twice the ads more affluent white people see for sugary foods and beverages. So these companies go out of their way to hook poor people and minorities, and then the police and the media and society collectively nail them for getting hooked on something that they can’t afford in the first place. You will not be surprised to learn that diabetes — a direct result of consuming too much soda — is twice as prevalent in these groups.

So I have to ask who among us really cares if McDonald’s, or Coca-Cola for that matter, loses out on 12 cents, even a million times over, when McDonald’s just reported a 2017 revenue of $5.8 billion? Sales are up 4 percent. Coca-Cola just reported $9.08 billion in revenue this earnings. Are they going to be okay? Can we live with them getting a poor-man squeeze they’ve long had coming?

It’s easy to mock dumb people for trying to cut a few corners and then crucify them to the full letter of the law for it, but in terms of actual human impact to society, sneezing without covering your mouth is a far worse crime.

This is, it must be said, in no way a defense of crime or soda, the latter of which should not even be allowed to exist. France rightly banned unlimited refills on soda recently because soda is a terrible toxic liquid that will kill us all. Soda increases chances for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, vitamin depletion and gout. Other studies even link soda consumption to depression and increased violence in teenagers, which may explain why the soda crimes so frequently escalate to assault charges.

But if we aren’t going to ban it, our best bet should be taxing it into infinity so it’s out of reach — not pulling some weird loss-leader move and charging a low price for it and then killing people on refills by sending them to jail.

While we’re at it, we should ban advertising for soda, just like we ban it for cigarettes, and ban its makers from targeting children and the poor. Last year, Scientific American wrote that if soda companies don’t want to be treated like Big Tobacco, they should stop acting like them; they lie about their ill-effects, deflect responsibility for them, and even pay dieticians to tweet opposition to taxes on sodas.

In 2015, The New York Times reported that soda consumption has finally dropped by some 25 percent — the largest dietary change in the American diet in a decade — after a number of awareness measures have reached enough people that we now finally realize how bad it is. The big three of soda scrambled to sell bottled water to offset the cost, but water is a less reliably consistent purchase, because water, as we know, doesn’t have the kick of an actual drug. But that’s not our problem; it’s theirs.

If we can’t ban soda altogether for the toxic stew that it is, perhaps we can at least handicap the right people for peddling a drug: The corporations that make it, instead of the people they target, lure and hook on it, for simply wanting another fix.