The most basic argument for a “fat tax” it is that no matter how a national system is organized, hospitals and medicine cost a lot of money. When the political structure is more on the socialism part of the spectrum, everyone pays for everything—including their neighbors’ bad choices and regrettable habits. Someone who would gladly pitch in to fix a new baby’s cleft palate might not be so ready to shell out for a 500-pound teenager’s bariatric surgery. When these distinctions are discussed, emotions run high.
Even in the most capitalist economy, a case can be made that when people spend their money on medical care, it is no longer available to spend on other things, like houses, cars, appliances, and entertainment. According to this worldview, large segments of the national economy are harmed by being deprived of income they would have otherwise acquired.
In their capacity as taxpayers, or as consumers, people pay a lot for the consequences of obesity, whether their own or others’. So why not tax the substances that cause the problems, and use the revenues to prevent and treat those problems? It sounds obvious enough to be a foregone conclusion. Childhood Obesity News has been looking at various countries where taxation often appears to be a very attractive option for dealing with the obesity epidemic.
Fat Tax in Canada
With no legislative power, a medical association can only speak in favor of what it has decided is a good idea, and then hope that someone listens. In 2012 the Ontario Medical Association publicly advocated high taxes for fat and sugary foods, and lower taxes on more healthful groceries. (The group’s policy paper, “Applying lessons learned from anti-tobacco
campaigns to the prevention of obesity,” is available as a PDF download.)
Any mention of tobacco gives the anti-tax faction something to push back against. They say “tobacco has no place in a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” whereas everyone has to eat food. “So just take your tobacco-tax analogy and go home,” is their attitude. Food and Consumer Products of Canada (read: lobbyists) told the press that Denmark had to give up on its saturated fat tax after a year, the implication being that no “fat tax” could succeed anywhere, ever. As always, and with an empathy saturated with self-interest, the food industry valiantly stuck up for the rights of the lower and middle income citizens.
Helen Branswell of The Star identified other items on the OMA wish list:
For the campaign, it devised images of food products—a serving of french fries from a fast-food restaurant, a pizza box, a juice pack, a carton of chocolate milk—branded with the types of eye-catching images and warnings that have changed the face of cigarette packaging.
The juice box bore a graphic picture of a deep ulcer on the sole of a foot, a problem people with diabetes can face that can lead to amputation. The milk carton was printed with a warning declaring that 500 mL of chocolate milk (the largest individual size sold) contains 360 calories and 12.5 teaspoons of sugar.
The following year, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) published “a comprehensive report…examining the scientific research and real-world experience of food taxes and obesity causes….” The Childhood Obesity Foundation had been making noise about putting a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, so that was the area author Peter Shawn Taylor mainly set out to defend:
Obesity is a complex condition with multiple determinants including social, environmental and biological factors. Taxing particular foods or beverages to reduce obesity is a naive solution to a multi-faceted problem.
More recently, CTF’s Jordan Bateman, employing a classic debating ploy that escalates the issue into a worst-case scenario, alerted the public that taxing soda pop like tobacco “would drive the price of a 12-pack from $5 to $18.” Another of his objections, that might be taken more seriously, is the international shopping problem. An awful lot of Canadians live pretty close to the U.S. border, and have already proven their willingness to make forays into America for better gas prices.
Of course, Homeland Security procedures may soon discourage most border-crossing bargain hunters. But until then, Bateman warns, a Canadian food tax would only enrich American businesses and further injure Canada’s economy. His final argument is very hard to refute, when the other person just doesn’t get it:
More than 96 per cent of Canadians face no elevated risk of mortality due to their weight. That means 96 per cent of us would be paying more in food taxes for no reason… How does unfairly taxing 96 per cent of Canadians encourage “personal responsibility”?
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Fight obesity like tobacco, say Ontario doctors,” TheStar.com, 10/23/12
Source: “Opinion: Food taxes didn’t work in Denmark and won’t work here,” VancouverSun.com, 05/22/14
Image by Marc Falardeau