The obesity crisis in Western society is not something that will simply go away, so we must work hard to figure out ways to curb it. For those of us not genetically-predisposed to hating taxes, it may initially seem like a good idea to impose a so-called “fat tax”— a tax that would be imposed on unhealthy “junk food,” with the intent of dissuading consumers from purchasing these items (at least as often).
This approach is very controversial and has even been proposed in Ontario back in 2004 — only to be canned after intense backlash. And it was a good thing too, not because I disregard the problem, but rather I question the effectiveness of a “fat tax” as a solution.
I agree that a fat tax would attempt to address negative side-effects (externalities) of an unhealthy diet, like the stress on the healthcare system.
As cost rises, consumption tends to go down. Yet how do you measure this in a way that is objectively quantifiable? There is no consensus as to whether this tax should be leveled against sodium, transfat or saturated fat among other possible measures.
It appears that our problem is twofold. Firstly, what is bad? Secondly, how much is bad?
Until we can get those things straight, it is difficult to rationalize that government should adjust the tax code to incentivize people to eat food that is not necessarily bad for them. For example, just recently there was a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which noted that the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease is not as clear as once thought.
There are just too many items on the shelves at grocery stores nowadays that it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to determine how to implement a ‘“fat tax,” even if we could answer the question of what constitutes “bad food.”
Cigarettes are heavily taxed but the difference between smoking and obesity is that the former is something that directly hurts the individual smoking, but also anyone exposed to second and even third-hand smoke.
This causes undue harm to non-smoking individuals — a negative externality. Additionally, the correlation is much stronger between smoking and lung disease, so tax measures make sense in moderation, so long as it doesn’t push sales to the black market.
I do not reject the notion of junk food being bad for your health, but I do realize that using government intervention should not be our first thought, especially when the solution is as convoluted and of questionable efficacy as this one.
Rejecting this alternative leaves us with the normative question —what ought we to do about chronic obesity in our society? Government could invest in programs that promote healthy eating choices, but they have to start becoming a lot more innovative in order to be successful, not to mention accountable for results.
Further research would allow us to make a more compelling case to everyone to make their eating choices wisely and would be used to pressure industry to adjust to consumer demand rather than punishing the consumer. For now, that is the best we can do.
In the meantime, let’s work on ensuring that those struck by poverty can afford healthy food. While the prices may often seem cheaper, fruits and vegetables tend to spoil much quicker than other foods which in practice tend to make them more expensive. A combination of poverty-reduction strategies along with further research about the effect of food on our health should be our main course of action for the time being.
There are many other barriers to healthy lifestyles — including countless ones beyond the control of the individual, including genetics, which contribute to obesity. And unfortunately, imposing taxes in this way is not going to mitigate those barriers.
So while everyone contemplates the merits of a “fat tax” on junk food, I am going to go to my closest Bulk Barn and load up on my favourite candy.
It’s a very taxing time of year — I need something cheap to relieve the stress.
Obesity in Canada
- 23 per cent of Canadians obese as of
– An additional 38 per cent are
classified as overweight
– Only 13 per cent of Canadians were
obese in 1978
– Of those with only secondary
education, 28 per cent are obese
– BC leads the country with an obesity
rate of only 19 per cent
*Courtesy of Statistics Canada