Most Americans are very overweight. About two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in the USA are too heavy or obese.
And with skyrocketing levels of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gout and even tooth decay, there’s a corresponding high cost associated with it to taxpayers, employers and society at large.
So now there’s a serious movement building that a coalition of politicians, social scientists, activists and educators are leading to curb the caloric intake of Americans, which includes taxing fatty foods and drinks.
The latest proposal involving a “fat tax” surfaced last week in Nevada where legislators proposed imposing a 5-cent tax on fast-food items containing more than 500 calories. That bid came on the heels of a request by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set a safe level for added sugars in beverages.
Politicians eager to raise revenue to pay for the higher medical costs associated with obesity are now pigging out on the idea of implementing the tax on high-caloric sugary and fatty foods as a possible way to curb American’s unhealthy appetites.
The idea is that if high-calorie food and drinks sold in fast-food restaurants and grocery stores are highly taxed, consumers will slow down their purchase and consumption of them. Similarly, what are called sin taxes has worked well reducing consumption of tobacco products over the last decade. When President Obama raised federal tobacco taxes by 62 percent days after he took office, the number of smokers declined by 3 million, and the U.S. Treasury raised more than $30 billion in new revenue.
Here’s the real problem, though. Despite the government’s claim that there’s little inflation afoot, shifting from cheap fatty and over-sugared foods to more healthful alternatives means spending more money. The price of healthy foods and staples can be pretty high.
Walk down the outer aisles of an American grocery store, where healthy foods stand on display, and look how costly fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy and fish have become. Then walk down the inner aisles, where the bad stuff sits, and look how much more bang for the buck you get from the fatty foods like pasta and white rice. Organic foods cost even more.
And fast food is really not cheap anymore either. In case you haven’t been to a fast food restaurant lately, except for the dollar menus which act as loss-leaders to bring in consumers, the price of that fatty fare has substantially gone up too. But even with these increases, you can still buy three or four Whoppers for the price of steak or salmon in a half-decent restaurant.
Unlike with smoking, it will be more difficult to curb the eating habits of fat Americans by taxing them or, for that matter, by trying to control the distribution of fatty and sugary foods.
Consider the federal government’s effort to do away with fattening foods at public-school lunches and serving healthier alternatives. Many simply stopped eating at lunchtime, and the costlier, healthier cuisine landed up in the garbage.
It’s just not America. In Denmark, a fat tax imposed on foods high in saturated fats was rescinded after one year when Danes revolted. Instead of paying the tax, many Danish just waddled across the border to Germany and Sweden to purchase cheaper butter and ice cream.
Plus, it’s doubtful that revenue from fat taxes will help bring down the cost of healthier foods or better educate consumers. If you look at how governments used tobacco tax revenue, you’ll see that only 5 percent of that raised since 1998 in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies have gone into anti-smoking programs. More likely, fat-tax revenues will pay for higher Medicaid costs already straining government budgets.
So here’s the skinny on the fat tax: Even if it’s only 5 cents for each Big Mac, it will just mean fatter taxes that overweight Americans can’t afford. Imposing a fat tax is a little like having paternalistic politicians tell us, “Let them eat fat-free cake.”
Steven Kurlander is an attorney and communications strategist. He writes weekly columns in the Sun Sentinel and Florida Voices and blogs in Kurly’s Kommentary. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.