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Is a Soda Tax Fair?


(Washington Post Photo Illustration)

As I reported in April, Yale professor Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and Thomas Frieden, health commissioner for the city of New York, have renewed their push for a soda tax as a means of curbing obesity.

In this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, Brownell reiterates his belief that a soda tax would dramatically reduce soda consumption. He's among the many experts who are convinced that over-consumption of sugared beverages, including sodas, sports drinks and fruit juices containing sugar or high fructose corn syrup, is one of the leading causes of overweight and obesity in America. Brownell suggests that revenue generated by the tax be used to support subsidies for farmers growing healthful foods, making good-for-you meals more accessible.

If that sounds reasonable to you, take a moment to hear what Adam Drewnowski has to say. Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, believes taxing soda fails to target obesity's true causes -- and is unfair to boot.

Drewnowski notes that soda consumption patterns in the general population correlate not just with obesity but with poverty, and that in focusing on the soda-obesity connection we fail to address other conditions associated with poverty, from sedentary lifestyles and television viewing to unemployment and "general hopelessness," that contribute to weight gain.

"We should be looking at those things," Drewnowski says. "That's my complaint -- why aren't we?" Addressing these issues would attack obesity at its core, he believes.

Drewnowski calls "callous" the contention by soda-tax proponents that soda consumption is "not necessary for life."

"Neither is a Park Avenue apartment," he scoffs.

A soda tax would disproportionately affect those who can least afford it, Drewnowski says. It's also punitive and threatens to make less accessible one of the few small pleasures many poor people can enjoy.

Drewnowski fears that current public-health messages about healthful foods promote expensive foods that seem out of reach to people with little money. "In reality, many people's food choices are extremely limited," Drewnowski says. "To a large extent, they eat what they can afford...The less money you have, the less inclined you are to want to spend it on wholesome food," says Drewnowski, who's been working to raise awareness of foods that are at once nutrient-rich and inexpensive. He favors helping people understand that humble, and relatively inexpensive, foods such as potatoes, beans, eggs and milk can form the basis of a satisfying and nutritious diet.

But in the end, Drewnowski suggests, we shouldn't be dictating what low-income people eat or don't eat. "There's an overt classism," he says, in regarding the "undeserving poor. They shouldn't have so much fun. They're lazy. They should eat lentils instead of French fries."

"That's kind of horrible," Drewnowski says.

What do you think? Is a soda tax a practical way to curb obesity? Or do you think it's barking up the wrong tree -- and kind of unjust, too? Please share your comments, and take a moment to vote in today's poll.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 11, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

This is an interesting question for which I've not been able to form a position.

I'd be interested if you could provide information on how Brownell, Drewnowski, and other experts feel about taxes on cigarettes and beer (or wine and other alcohol in general).

Do these improve health? Increase revenue? Are they unjust? Where does the revenue from these taxes get spent?

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | August 11, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

We as a nation cannot just keep taxing things we don't think people should do because it is unhealthy. We are supposed to be a nation based on freedom from oppressive governments, a society of people able to make their own choices. So how about allowing people to do so?

Sure, soda isn't good for you but neither is cake, cookies, ice cream, candy, too much tv, I could go on and on. I also feel that the tobacco tax and alcohol taxes are overstepping the bounds of what a government should be able to tax. Seriously, if this soda tax happens, then one by one, anything deemed unhealthy will succumb as well. It will be Demolition Man (movie) for real.

You cannot force people to be healthy, and you have no right to try.

Posted by: falltillfly | August 11, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm sort of with Arlington on this; I can see both sides. The underlying problem here is that we have so many built-in subsidies that help make crap food so much cheaper than healthy foods. Why do you think industry moved to high-fructose corn syrup over plain sugar?? It wasn't because of the taste -- it was because government subsidies made corn production a lot cheaper than sugar.

Manufacturers are businesses; they don't care about ideology, they just want to find the most compelling product at the cheapest price. If the government throws money at corn, they'll buy HFCS; if the government then makes up for that by giving equivalent subsidies to the sugar cane growers (one of the most powerful lobbies in their own right), then they'll buy sugar. And when all sweeteners becomes ridiculously cheap compared to real food, they'll find ways to add more and more of it to their foods instead of more expensive, healthier ingredients.

It's all fine and dandy to say that the government shouldn't interfere and people should make their own choices. But the fact is, the government has ALREADY interfered, and now we have to deal with the consequences. Our current government agricultural policies were designed in the 30s and 40s to address the biggest problem of that day: malnutrition. They were specifically designed to encourage plentiful, cheap food so people didn't go hungry. Guess what? It worked. Too well. Crap is now so cheap that healthier choices, like fruits and vegetables, can't compete.

First rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging. If you want healthy, affordable food, you have to stop making the crap even cheaper. Get rid of the big ag subisidies. Then, if you really want to make healthy food affordable, move that $$ over to small farmers who sell fruits and vegetables locally.

But in reality, that's never going to happen. Those subsidies are now such entrenched entitlements that no one dares touch them. And given that, I guess I don't mind the tax idea too much -- it's sort of the government recovering on the back-end what it gives on the front-end, which in the end makes the playing field a little more level.

Posted by: laura33 | August 11, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

High-fructose corn syrup! Trans fats! Polysorbate 80! Tax them all!

Yeaaaaagggghhhh!!!!!

Posted by: bs2004 | August 11, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

If the US tax & subsidy systems favored healthy foods, fruits & vegetables, and penalized unhealthy foods and their origins,corn & soy to beef & pork, then consumers of all incomes could choose healthy foods at a reasonable cost. Until the reward for growing and producing unhealthy foods is reversed and rewards growing healthy foods all efforts to combat obesity are doomed to fail. Treat the cause not the effect.

Posted by: kjmilow | August 11, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

The poor people can still insist on drinking heavily taxed sodas and will still benefit from the hopefully positive effects of the tax proceeds in terms of better and cheaper access to healthy foods. The rich people are paying disproportionate taxes on organic foods.
One hand washes the other. Both hands wash the face

Posted by: kokiri | August 11, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I agree that we should just stop subsidizing the corn industry to the extent that we do. Soda and juice makers will move back to real sugar, and the government saves money.

Posted by: dkp01 | August 11, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

What laura said, above. Only problem is, the government wouldn't be "recovering" on the back-end from the folks who made out like bandits from the government's interference on the front-end. That is, the food manufacturers who get cheap ingredients because of subsidies won't pay this tax -- the consumers will.

I think the best outcome would be for the government to take a hard look at its existing subsidies, and re-evaluate their necessity.

Posted by: J2-D2 | August 11, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Heck yes, tax junk food. And tax gasoline too, while you're at it. I'm aware of the "slippery slope" argument, but sometimes our gov't needs to save us from ourselves...

Posted by: kerewin1971 | August 11, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

How about instead of going the tax route, industries have to offer low-sugar alternatives? NOT diet soda - let's not encourage the consumption of even more chemicals with unknown health effects. But is it so hard to make lightly-sweetened, little-or-no sugar beverages commonplace? Yeah, besides water or unsweetened iced tea. Offering tasty, same-priced, healthier alternatives wherever you find soda (vending machines, fast food, most mainstream restaurants) is a start, and doesn't seem so difficult to me. Kind of like with the automobile market - let's stop offering so many products that are BAD for us, and encourage those that are better. A combination of that, and a strong public health awareness, and we might empower people to make choices that are better for them. Not through a tax, but through appropriate subsidies.

Posted by: fat_kitty | August 11, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

If you're going to tax (heavily) tobacco and alcohol, why is it any different to tax soda? These are all ultimately luxuries. I don't buy that this is somehow classist, either. When I was poor and working multiple jobs to keep afloat, I didn't buy soda because it was a luxury. Same with coffee drinks and other similar items. And all these people that say it costs more to eat healthy - not really. Eating healthy does not mean you have to rush to the organics aisle (in my opinion). Frozen and canned veggies can be an inexpensive alternative as can regular old non-organic produce. Rice, beans, soup....these things are cheap. Frankly, I was at my skinnest when I was making the least, because I tended to plan out my meals ahead of time to make them stretch and I just didn't buy things that were luxuries like soda, desserts, steak, chips....I could last a week on a whole chicken, some rice, canned soup and frozen veggies. Frankly, I'm kind of tired of having to tiptoe around the weight issue. Yes, it isn't easy for many folks to slim down - trust me, I know. I struggle with my weight every day, put in many hated hours at the gym and I watch what I eat and drink like a hawk and even then - pounds only come off slowly. But we as a nation seem more inclined to make excuses than real change. And despite all of the research, we seem to ignore that obesity can be just as dangerous to one's health as smoking or alcohol consumption.

Posted by: vickistired | August 11, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, its difficult to really determine government's actual intent in taxing sugary drinks, due to the economic conditions. Were we in relative "boom times," and government wasn't running unprecedented deficits, we might say we had fixed at least one variable, thus making the analysis a little more logical. But having too many variables, and not enough facts means an analysis will be too dependent on assumptions, and we won't know whether government just wants the money (which is what I suspect), and this tax will have little or no effect on obesity (which is what I also suspect).

I am no medical expert, but it seems to me if humans have a hunger for a certain large number of sweet calories per day, and up until the tax were meeting that hunger with soda, a rise in soda prices will just drive them to more twinkies and caramel corn.

Now liberals are always in search of a "comprehensive" this or that. You know --- "comprehensive immigration reform" --- not "Medicare reform," but "comprehensive health care reform." If they were consistent, they would also want, in lieu of a targeted tax on soda, "comprehensive fatty food reform." This would tax almost all foods containing any sugar, or excessive oils such as any fried foods, butter, complex carbs, you name it. It would the "comprehensive" nirvana all good lefties seek, as "our current food system is clearly broken --- look at all the fatties!!"

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | August 11, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Who cares if it's fair? All taxes are unfair to someone.

Soda is a luxury. Nobody needs soda. Last I looked, even in America, tap water was drinkable in poor neighborhoods as well as rich.

If kids really don't have money they drink water.

I think the "fair" thing is a ploy by soda and snack makers to reframe this revenue-raiser to protect themselves.

Soda isn't an essential. Government is hungry for cash - it's a good target.

Posted by: RedBird27 | August 11, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

So falltillfly says not only is this a bad idea, but get rid of the tobacco tax too. Well, that money in effect pays the higher doctor bills of Medicare patients dying of emphysema caused by smoking. Economists call it a Pigovian tax (look it up). Yes, it's regressive, but it serves a purpose. If you insist on smoking, you are significantly raising the chances that you will cost your fellow citizens a lot of money someday. So go ahead and enjoy your cigarettes, but fork over the dough.

Same for soda. It has no nutritional value. You don't need it. It's a privilege, a tasty treat that you choose to spend your money on -- not a right. No one is gonna ban soda. But a 5-cent-a-bottle tax not only wouldn't break anyone's bank, it would also raise some revenue to combat the ill effects of ingesting 32 ounces of corn syrup a day. (As for Drewnowski, by his own logic he should also think that the tobacco tax is unfair, since the rate of smoking is also higher among lower-income people. I'm betting he'd hesitate to make that argument, though.)

Posted by: gmg22 | August 11, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

When I was growing up, we drank water, milk, and sometimes Kool-Aid. Carbonated beverages were for special occasions. I agree with the poster who said that sodas are a luxury.

Posted by: destinysmom | August 11, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Yale professor Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and Thomas Frieden, health commissioner for the city of New York, are friggin idiots. At this point we need to be more worried about jobs and having peopel keep the jobs they have not some liberal feel good way to raise taxes.

What we really need is a stupdity tax and these two owe thousands just for brathing the air we need to survive.

Posted by: zendrell | August 11, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Did Drewnowski really call soda drinking a “small pleasure”? Really?

So, the government should NOT tax or regulate what people eat but IS expected to fund the health care cost of unhealthful behavior such as poor eating habits, smoking and drinking, is that it? That’s a rather hypocritical position. I agree with personal freedoms but not at the expense of the greater good (as in resources diverted to take care of people who abdicated the responsibility of taking care of themselves). Water is free. If it doesn’t taste great, the cost of a filter pitcher would be paid for with just a week or two of not purchasing soft drinks. Drinking soda is a personal choice but I (through my tax dollars) should not have to pay for someone else’s obesity or diabetes treatment because that person drank a liter of soda everyday and/or only ate at McDonalds.

It IS hypocritical of the government to fund subsidies for food production such as high fructose corn syrup while other wings of the government are desperately trying to curb its consumption and that, in and of itself, is a complete waste of resources. However, the overwhelming strength of the farm and food production lobby is downright scary (if you haven’t seen “Food, Inc.” I highly recommend it). It seems overwhelming to fight the farm subsidies or practices of Monsanto and other food corporations but there is a very specific place to do it – by holding your legislators accountable. THEY are the ones funding these subsidies and they can chose not to. Or you can chose to vote for someone else.

Posted by: JLF03 | August 11, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm skinny. Why should I be forced to pay extra for my Coke. Sure there are some clinical diseases that cause obesity, but for the most part it is a choice (just like excessive drinking or smoking). Why not tax obese people directly? The tax would be a good incentive to lose weight.

Posted by: skinnydude | August 11, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

The tax does not get to the heart of the problem, which is unhealthy eating habits. A tax will not cause a soda drinker to suddenly start drinking water or juice. They will probably switch to another unhealthy alternative or soda-like drinks that can somehow avoid being subject to the tax will emerge.

Posted by: mediajunky | August 11, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

A soda tax would be a great way to raise tax revenue, but I do not believe it would lower consumption. People pay $4+ for a lousy cup of coffee at Starbucks; they'll certainly pay a few extra cents for a soda. As long people want to drink soda, they'll find a way to pay for it -- they'll complain, but they'll still buy it. Remember, this is the "I want, I want, I want -- it's my right!" society, and the heck with anyone else.

Posted by: TwoEvils | August 11, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Brownell's plan is just too complicated. I agree more with Drewnowski.

Let's find another solution to the problem. Why tax skinny people who want sodas and control their intake? Consider higher health insurance premiums for the obese. Too radical? They already pay more for life insurance, as they should. Higher premiums would be additional incentive to lose the excess weight. Money motivates.

-Steve
-http://advancedmediterraneandiet.com/blog/

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | August 11, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Not only does adding an extra tax on sodas not make sense (we are already paying a tax for sodas, candy, and chips...) but it certainly won't curb consumption. Besides the tax is expected to exclude diet sodas which are actually worse for a person to drink than regular sodas.
Artificial sweeteners trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that actually triggers the drinker's appetite and desire for more sugar - which in turn causes the person to eat more.
Moderation is the key here - and here's another concept for everyone worried about the poor - take cookies, sodas, and candy off the approved items list for Food Stamps and WIC. I mean seriously, they can't buy toilet paper with food stamps, but they can spend all of their food stamps on candy, sodas, and cookies.
Nutrition is important - and a good place to start teaching better nutrition habits is the school lunch program - Chicken nuggets, french fries, and chocolate pudding can easily be replaced with baked chicken, rice, and natural (unsweetened) applesauce for a good start...

Posted by: ladybug39 | August 11, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Fair...hmmm, well a soda tax would be uniform, reagrdless of income or economic strata so in THAT respect it would be fair.

A soda tax would be set by our legislators, over whom we have equal say with votes and petitions, so in THAT respect it would be fair.

A soda tax would be levied on all sodas regardless of where and when sold....so it would be fair in THAT respect, too.

So by definition it would be fair. But isn't the real question would a soda tax do what it is intended to?

If what the soda tax is supposed to achieve is an additional revenue stream, then it will be successful.

However, if what it is suppose to acheive is lower consumption and in turn create fewer and less obese people, not a chance.

Look at cigarettes, even with the "Truth" and other anti-smoking campaigns, and with taxes in excess of product cost I defy you to walk ONE city block and not find at least three smokers actively enjoying a puff, and at least two packs worth of cigarette butts on the ground.

Smokers will smoke, soda drinkers will drink soda,

Taxing bad habits to incentivize good behavior doesn't work.

Now if we're looking for revenue streams let's increase or install taxes on THESE convenience items:

Cell Phones (that do anything more than simply make and recieve phone calls)...who needs these high battery drain items creating only piles of dead batteries and cell phone bodies that degrade VERY slowly and often toxically?

Bottled water [waste of utility to process and transport] total pollution...use your own re-washable bottle and if you want that bottled water "purity" to fill it, buy a charcoal filter or other purification system for your home.

Privately Owned Cars and trucks that do not get over 20 MPG city. Yeah, the H2s, Expeditions, Rovers, and Suburbans of the world deserve the same amount of taxes as the Prius, Geo, and Prelude owners...riiiight.

Homes over 3000 square feet (750 square foot per resident), or with vaulted ceilings. Big buildings are such energy pigs to heat and cool. If you don't mind thate added energy expense, what's a little tax going to matter?

Having more than three children (with exceptions for adopting existing children over three). Creates more demand for resources, and more waste to dispose of.

Alcohol. Not even needed, except for profits on sales and taxes anyway.

Let's focus on ways to encourage people to become more active, instead of looking at the food as the issue. Let's really look at how to make healthy options more affordable and more appealing to low income consumers.

THEN we can achieve what you want here...

FYI, I own a cell phone, and consume alcohol and junk food

Posted by: ThinkingMan | August 11, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Adam...I know in my neighborhood you can go to the corner market and get a 2 liter of soda for 99cents. Go to the grocery store and a 2 litter of OJ or Cranberry juice costs you $2.00 to $4.00 bucks. People want to eat healthy but can't afford to...why is it that the unhealthy stuff is so much cheaper...it should be the reverse and maybe folks will make better choices. Also grocery stores in poor neighborhoods don't carry the fancy healthy stuff so you have less to choice from.

Posted by: theguester | August 11, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I am also not sure how I feel about this as our government is not well known for managing the funds it is getting now.

However, I definitely think that anyone (myself included, I just quit drinking soda and it sucks) should have to pay our fair share for the health care costs that come from my own poor behaviors. If I smoke I can't expect the rest of the country to foot my health care costs. Why should being obese be any different.

I am 100% against the government banning anything in the name of "saving me from myself." That just smacks way too much of big brother, and I don't need one. However, they are not proposing banning any of these things, just taxing them.

Lastly, skinnydude, just because you're skinny doesn't mean you are healthy. I can't tell you how many skinny people I know with diabetes and high cholesterol.

Posted by: mwalkerg | August 11, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

What happens when we tax the items out of existence? Cigarettes will be gone in a few decades as tobacco farms are decreasing.
Alcohol; we could tax that even more than we are doing now.
Gasoline: that is already taxed and sure, let's tax it some more.

Soda and fast food taxes: do you know that the poor have less access to grocery stores than the non-poor? Drive around an impoverished area in the city of your choice and you will see what I mean.
Oh, they could drive to a store...
The poor may not have a car...insurance and gas add to that expense.
So, let's go on a bus to a grocery store.
Yeah. Maybe they could walk five miles to the store and back...think about Anacostia as an example

Some of the comments display the "classism" mentioned by Drewnowski. The arguments about HFCS might be valid, but try talking to people who don't have ACCESS to nutritious food.

"Baked chicken and rice" for a school lunch?
Would be nice, but schools don't let the students have plastic knives, never mind "real" knives.

Government is either going to govern or become a stifling nanny.
But even a nanny teaches their charges to make their own choices.

Posted by: Chatelaine | August 11, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

As an addict of Diet Coke/Coke Zero I would love a tax to stop me from drinking it. Recently the vending machine where I worked added on 50 cents to the price of my daily 20 ounce bottle of Coke Zero, going from 1.25 to 1.50. After the price jump, even though it was only 50 cents, I decided to stop buying it. I needed that extra price increase to get me to stop. I know that I am just one person, but I think it could work in general to at least turn people away from unhealthy sodas; however, getting people to turn to healthy ones is a different obstacle.

Posted by: ChristopherHathaway | August 11, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Obesity is a serious and complex problem that requires thoughtful and comprehensive solutions. But a tax on soda is simply the wrong approach. A tax will not teach children healthy lifestyles. Education, exercise and balanced diets do that.

Furthermore, science shows that all calories count – regardless of their source. Thus, soft drinks are no greater a contributor to obesity than any other caloric food or beverage.

As we look for ways to improve healthcare, the focus should be on solutions that work. A tax on soda won’t make a dent in paying for improved healthcare or addressing obesity. In fact, obesity rates for adults and children have risen since 2000, while soft drinks sales dropped annually since that time due to industry’s product innovation.

For more information, visit the American Beverage Association at www.ameribev.org.

Posted by: jbadger1 | August 11, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

In Oregon, we already have a bottle bill. A shopper must pay a deposit of 5 cents for each can or bottle of soda. The nickel is returned to the shopper when empties are returned to the place of purchase, thus promoting recycling. It works!

Why not add another 5 cents to this, making it 10 cents? The collection site is already established. The 5 cent deposit would be returned to the shopper for the empty container. The other nickel would go to fund schools and nothing else.

This places the tax on the user. No one is forced to pay this tax, because everyone has many choices of beverages to buy.

But who buys soda? Mostly, KIDS! And the tax would benefit KIDS!

Do you really think this would help America cut back on crappy foods? Hell, no! We are AMERICANS, we buy what we want! Those of us who drink soda only rarely, because we know it is horrible, aren't affected by this tax. And those who love soda will drink all they want anyway.

But the upshot is, there is more money for schools. Where they teach good eating habits. And maybe some of that teaching will soak in.

NAH! But the tax is a good idea anyway.

Posted by: mrychr | August 11, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

You can't buy toothpaste/toothbrush w/ food stamps, but you CAN buy liters of soda, candy, and other HFCS "treats" TOTALLY DEVOID OF NUTRITION. That's just wrong. Taxes (and tax credits) DO CHANGE BEHAVIOR. It's a great idea and maybe simplier than taking on the king corn subsidies that gets all mixed up w/ ethanol, etc etc.
And yes, diet soda is just as bad, causing food cravings. No one ever lost weight LONG TERM drinking diet soda....when you're drinking soda, you don't want a piece of watermelon or a big glass of water. You've got to get off it cold turkey. Raising the price dramatically could do the trick. Help people make their tastebuds make the switch to craving healthy fruits and vegetables INSTEAD...but they don't stand a chance next to a candy bar.

Posted by: sgoewey | August 11, 2009 10:05 PM | Report abuse

Oh Professor Drewnowski, whenever did a Park Ave apartment directly contribute to someone's obesity? Empty unneeded calories dear man. If it affects the lower classes disproportionately, so does obesity! If your class sensitivity hyperdrive cannot be dialed down, then go ahead and tax brie and foie gras so you can sleep at night.

Posted by: agmusci | August 11, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Don't think it will change one persons consumption. Taxes on smoking has not stopped the people that do that habit.

Posted by: jgoodman1 | August 12, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

The government already has enough of our money. Period.

Posted by: JenPost | August 12, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Lastly, skinnydude, just because you're skinny doesn't mean you are healthy. I can't tell you how many skinny people I know with diabetes and high cholesterol.

You need to get some new, healthier friends!

Posted by: Axel2 | August 13, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

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