Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A fat tax?

New York Governor David Patterson is proposing a new tax to help close their massive budget deficit. Some call it the obesity tax or fat tax, basically it’s a 15% levy on non-diet soft drinks. If this becomes law, a Coke will cost you $1.15 while a Diet Coke costs $1. So does this make sense?

The conservative in me says that taxation is inherently bad, just another way for the government to make up for their budgetary mismanagement. If they need money, they can find it by spending cuts. But the capitalist in me says that if you want to discourage bad behavior then increasing the price on such behavior is the proper way to go, and the market will allow things to properly settle. It has worked to some degree with smoking as the huge taxes on cigarettes have helped many people at least cut back if not quit completely. So why not do the same for bad food?

I’m actually okay with this kind of tax. Obesity is becoming the number one health problem in this country and childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. Latest estimates show that 20% of children are obese. That’s appalling. These same children are being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes before they turn 20, and some are developing coronary artery disease before age 30. Obesity brings with it many other health problems, things like osteoarthritis, hypertension, asthma, infertility, chronic fatigue, high cholesterol and depression/anxiety just to name a few. This translates to higher costs for health care and if those patients can’t afford it then these costs are passed on to the general consumer. Indeed, in my opinion, obesity is THE number one health problem in our country. Eliminate it, and we eliminate many, many other medical problems.

The beverage association points to two studies that supposedly link diet soda to obesity, as though to claim that the tax targets the wrong thing. Disregard these studies. The data in question shows that people who drink diet soda are more likely to be obese than those who don’t. This would lead some to conclude that diet soda causes obesity. That’s not a proper conclusion. In order to draw such a conclusion, you’d have to structure the study in a way that includes people of similar genetic backgrounds, fed the exact same diet, on the exact same exercise program, with the exception being one group gets diet soda and the other gets something else. Then you follow these people over time to see who gains more weight. That’s not what these studies did. They simply gathered statistical data on the general population that showed obese people are more likely to drink diet soda. All that tells me is that obese people are more likely to diet than non-obese people, and drinking diet soda is often part of dieting. I’m sure I could produce a similar study that shows that people who drink slim fast are more likely to be obese, yet are we prepared to say that slim fast causes obesity?

So if you want to tax soda then that’s fine with me. A typical 12 ounce soda contains about 120 calories, more than 10% of our recommended daily caloric intake, more than you’ll find in a typical light beer. Drink 3 or 4 a day and you’ve consumed 40% of your daily calories without taking a single bite. And this doesn’t even address the basic metabolic effects of sugar and what it does to insulin levels. Yeah, sugary soft drinks are most definitely contributing to our health problems. The state of Texas has eliminated soda vending machines in their public schools. Good riddance. There is no doubt in my mind that this new trend of over-diagnosing attention deficit disorder is in some way related to the amount of sugar intake these kids are experiencing. It just makes sense. A child hopped up on sugar is going to have difficulty concentrating, focusing and paying attention in class.

So I say tax it, but don’t stop there. Why not tax other things that are problematic? I’d levy a tax on fast food, candy, potato chips, sugar and high fructose corn syrup. But the powerful food lobbies would never allow it, and the dems would hardly support it claiming that it would unfairly tax the poor. Bull.

It’s funny how we so easily demonize tobacco, yet seem to have little problem with a super size menu at the local fast food joint. I could make a strong argument that eating off that menu is worse for your body than smoking. But something tells me that argument would fall on deaf ears. But one thing’s for sure: If we don’t take action to stop the obesity epidemic in America we’re going to see a massive increase in health care costs, a drop in life expectancy and declining worker productivity. That will make it hard for us to compete with countries like China, which doesn’t seem to have this problem.

8 comments:

allison said...

The use of tobacco, when it is smoked in the form of cigarettes, at least, is that it affects others rather than just the person making the choice to smoke. Fast food, while also not good for ones body, doesn't have an impact on anyone else in the vicinity unless they themselves are eating it too.

Kristina said...

I'm nowhere near obese, rarely drink soda, but when I do, it's a regular soda. Why should I be punished because other people can't control themselves? I'm an all natural, all whole wheat, etc., girl at home, but believe in moderation in all things. Ergo, when I eat out, I have no problem going off the all natural stuff for a rare night out.

I agree with you that regularly eating at these places is extremely bad for your health, and children should not be subjected to it, but really, taxing it will not, 1 solve the problem, and 2 is not the way to get rid of something we don't like. Taxes are not meant (at least in my opinion) to provide a moral compass for the country.

I think you're standing on the edge of the every present slippery slope.:)

John Washburn said...

Allison, the poor eating habits of others DOES affect us all. It is one of the reasons for escalating health care costs and decreased access to health care providers. Think about that the next time you can't get an appointment with your doctor or you have to pay $10 for an aspirin in the hospital.

Kristina, you make a good point. Ideally, we ALL would practice responsible lifestyles but that's simply not reality. Granted, bad food is not the reason why America is obese but rather the irresponsible consumption of that food. And when we can't behave responsibly on our own then I see no problem with taxing that irresponsible behavior in order to relieve some of the burden that falls on the responsible. Remember, you may have to pay a little extra for your occasional Coke, but that's better than having to absorb the extraordinary health care costs that come with the obesity epidemic. That's how I look at it.

allison said...

It doesn't directly affect everyone's HEALTH, which is the point I was making.

Anonymous said...

Doc,

Good points all. I am heading east early tomorrow into inclement weather by all accounts. I think I will carry an extra book.

If I do not get another opportunity, Happy Holidays to you and yours.

The Loop mGaroo Kid

Miss T.C. Shore said...

One factual error: 120 calories is not more than 10% of our recommended daily caloric intake. If that were the case, the recommended daily caloric intake would be 1200 calories. Most diets recommend 1000 to 1200 calories per day at a MINIMUM for someone who wants to lose weight. The USDA uses 2000 calories a day as its reference, making a 120 calorie soda just over 5% of the daily calorie intake. (Although, 2000 calories is probably more than the average American really needs.)

Otherwise your article is well written.

I'm not sure I'm in favor of the soda tax. Like you, generally when I hear the word tax, I cringe. Americans generally have no idea how much they are already taxed. Between income taxes, Social Security taxes, unemployment taxes, FICA, property taxes, sales taxes, school levy's and bond issues, gas taxes, cigarette and alcohol taxes and so on, many of us already pay over 50% of our income to taxes. These kind of "nickel and dime" taxes are how Obama and the Dems will pay for things like national health care and the Trillion dollar bailout without raising our income taxes (at least for a year or two).

You do make a good point. If you go there, anyway, why stop at soft drinks? I might add, that a sedentary lifestyle contributes more to obesity than soft drinks or fast food, or snack foods. Why not add federal taxes to the internet, video games, cable TV and other things that keep couch potatoes on the couch. You could even tax these things based on usage, since the technology would be easy to add.

The problem is, it's a slippery slope. Once you start down that road, there is no end to what will have additional "health-related taxes" added on.

Wry Mouth said...

Unintended consequence: which is worse for a person, aspartame or sugar?

(this from a person who chain-drinks colas, diet and regular both)

FYI I am 5'10" and 190 lbs. and can leg out a run from 1st on a deep fly ball.

When do the "genetics" taxes begin to be levied?

Auntyem said...

John,

You said, "That will make it hard for us to compete with countries like China, which doesn’t seem to have this problem".

What problem? I think they are having problems like ours. They now have Starbucks and our fast food chains over there, no? Also, they are putting melamine in their food, even baby formulas, because somehow it mimics protein. They are selling us dog food and cheap meat for human consumption loaded with melamine, etc. We are all doomed, and our pets too.

Emilie
Port Orchard, WA