ALBANY - Straight-laced, decorous state Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines has surprised political observers by starring in a YouTube video he produced that promotes a controversial proposed state tax on sugary beverages.
"No one likes to here about more taxes, but some taxes can be good for your health," Daines says in the Internet video entitled Soda vs. Milk. "There is an obesity epidemic in this state and we are particularly concerned with the lifelong health of the state's young people."
Aside from generating needed tax revenue, the measure, dubbed the "fat tax," will also combat the skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and offer associated health benefits, state Health Department officials said.
"34 percent of the children in the state are technically obese," state Health Department Spokeswoman Claire Pospisil said Wednesday. "The commissioner went home with his camera and his iMac computer and made a rough version of the video in his kitchen and showed it to us - we were all on board with his approach to marketing the concept."
At one point in the video which was taped in a barren light-green kitchen setting, Daines slings a huge lump of latex foam on the kitchen counter, meant to represent the amount of fat a human can gain over one year from daily soda consumption.
While Daines' friends and associates may have allowed themselves a grin over his YouTube appearance, Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun winced at his acting ability and suggested last week that Daines should have left the advertising effort up to professionals.
LeBrun may have missed the point, however.
By Tuesday, Daines' YouTube video commanded more than 50,000 views and inspired more than 900 comments, although posted only a week on the popular amateur video site. The primitive video cost taxpayers less than $300.
And judging by the comments posted, Daines may have become an Internet cult icon.
Some YouTube viewers praised his unpolished, almost-cornball presentation; a New York Times reporter found good humor in it.
The popularity of the YouTube video has been compounded by the media attention the non-traditional campaign has received. Last week, Daines appeared on MSNBC and Good Morning America discussing the soda tax proposal.
But many of the comments posted in reaction to Daines' YouTube commercial attack the tax concept, defending citizens' rights to drink soda tax-free.
However, state Health Department officials see the issue otherwise - that the soda tax could discourage consumption and reduce the incidence of life-threatening diseases related to excessive sugar intake and obesity.
"We would like people to cut back on their intake of soda and sugary juices," Pospisil said. "Taxes are an effective way of changing behavior, as we are seeing with cigarette usage."
Current data indicates a four-percent decrease in cigarette consumption since last year's implementation of the new "vice tax," she said.
"We are concerned with the current behaviors of people -especially children," Pospisil said. "In the past, milk was a primary component of a diet - now soda consumption has exponentially surpassed milk and water."
Pospisil said she was a fan of the YouTube promotional strategy that Daines reportedly dreamed up in a post-midnight brainstorm.
"We think this is a great way of getting our message out," Pospisil said. "It is cost-effective and widely accessible."