This House Would Implement A Fat Tax

The WHO reports that “in 2008 1.5 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight with a Body Mass Index (a proxy measurement of body fat based on height and weight) over 25 and that of these 1.5 billion overweight adults, over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese (BMI > 30). Overall, more than one in ten of the world’s adult population was reported to be obese. Once considered a high-income country problem, overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. Close to 35 million overweight children are living in developing countries and 8 million in developed countries.”

The WHO notes that “Overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk for global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity.”[1]

Since one of the factors that contributes to obesity is the inordinate amount of calories consumed[2], and given the fact that fats have more than twice as much calories (9 kcal/g) than protein and carbohydrates (4 kcal/g) on a gram basis[3], could introducing disincentives to fat consumption curb the obesity epidemic?

We would implement a flat tax on food items high (in excess of 20% of the daily requirements) on saturated fats, salt and sugar. Hungary did that and introduced a flat tax on foods high in fat, sugar and salt in the amount of 10 forint (0.037 EUR) on the 1st of September.[4] Denmark did something similar on the 1st of October, charging 16 DKK (2.15 EUR) per kg of saturated fat on domestic and imported food, not including products with saturated fat content fewer than 2.3%.[5] There are similar initiatives and proposals in other EU countries as well, as well as overseas in the US.[6]

[1] WHO, Obesity and overweight, published in March 2011, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/index.html, accessed 9/12/2011

[2] CDC, Overweight and Obesity: Causes and Consequences, published 5/16/2011, http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/causes/index.html, accessed 9/12/2011

[3] Buchholz, A. C., Schoeller, D. A., Is a calorie a calorie?, published in May 2004, http://www.ajcn.org/content/79/5/899S.full?ijkey=f3919ec7617632925bb12e0ffb8deeb08a678686, accessed 9/12/2011

[4] Cheney, C., Hungary Introduces 'Fat Tax', published 9/1/2011, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,783862,00.html, accessed 9/12/2011

[5] Danish Agriculture & Food Council, Fat tax in Denmark agreed, published 6/22/2011, http://www.agricultureandfood.co.uk/Current_issues/Danish_Matters/2011/June/Fat_tax_in_Denmark_agreed.aspx, accessed 9/12/2011

[6] Leonhardt, D., Fat tax, published 8/16/2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/magazine/16FOB-wwln-t.html, accessed 9/12/2011

 

Title 
An individual's BMI is no longer a purely personal matter
Point 

The obesity epidemic is taking an enormous toll on global medical costs. In the US alone the health care costs attributable to either direct or indirect consequences of obesity have been estimated at $147bn.[1] Put into context, this amounts to roughly 9% of the health spending in the US.[2]

The figure might seem excessive, but we need to remember that obesity is linked to Type 2 Diabetes, several kinds of cancer, coronary artery disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, asthma, chronic back pain and hypertension, to name just a few.

We also need to realize that many of the diseases on this list are chronic in nature, requiring lifelong pharmacological therapy, which often follows complex and expensive diagnostic procedures, frequent medical specialist consultations, and not infrequent emergency interventions.[3]

Adding to the list is the value of income lost due to decreased productivity, restricted activity, and absenteeism, not to mention the value of future income lost by premature death.

Thus it becomes increasingly clear that due to the substantial cost obesity presents to the society, individual choices that might lead to excessive weight gain, can no longer be considered as solely individual in nature.[4]

Therefore the government is legitimate in its action to introduce a form of a fat tax in order to try to dissuade the population from becoming obese and cover the increasing societal costs the already obese individuals are responsible for.

[1] CDC, Obesity: Economic Consequences, published 3/28/2011, http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/causes/economics.html, accessed 9/12/2011

[2] RTI international, Obesity Costs U.S. About $147 Billion Annually, Study Finds, published 7/27/2009, http://www.rti.org/news.cfm?objectid=329246AF-5056-B172-B829FC032B70D8DE, accessed 9/14/2011

[3] The Council of State Governments, Costs of Chronic Diseases: What Are States Facing?, published in 2006, http://www.healthystates.csg.org/NR/rdonlyres/DA24108E-B3C7-4B4D-875A-74F957BF4472/0/ChronicTrendsAlert120063050306.pdf, accessed, 9/14/2011

[4] Los Angeles Times, Should there be a 'fat tax'?, published 4/11/2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/11/opinion/la-ed-obesity-20110411, accessed 9/12/2011

 

Counterpoint 

An important source of extravagant medical spending around the world, especially in the US, can be traced to inherent inefficiencies of current medical care systems.[1] And the current trends show the situation to be worsening.

It is thus impossible for anyone to really say whether the rising cost of the medical care system can really be attributed to obesity related diseases, especially since those are some of the most common ailments of the modern age.

It is also unfair to single out obesity as the single cause that should get such intense scrutiny and attention. What about the connection between consumption of meat and colorectal cancer?[2] Should we introduce an additional levy in that case as well?

[1] Connolly, C., U.S. ‘Not Getting What We Pay For’, published 11/30/2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/29/AR2008112902182.html, accessed 9/12/2011

[2] The HMS Family health guide, Red meat and colon cancer, published in March 2008, http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/Red-meat-and-colon-cancer.shtml, accessed 9/12/2011

Title 
There is ample precedent in the form of other “sin” taxes
Point 

A sin tax is a term often used for fees tacked on to popular vices like drinking, gambling and smoking. Its roots have been traced back to the 16th century Vatican, where Pope Leo X taxed licensed prostitutes.[1]

More recently, and with greater success, US federal cigarette taxes were shown to have reduced consumption by 4% for every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes.[2]

Given the success achieved with uprooting this societal vice, which on a number of counts is similar to the unhealthy food one - immense health costs linked to a choice to consume a product – we should employ this tried and true strategy to combat the obesity epidemic.

In fact, a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine followed 5000 people for 20 years, tracking food consumption and various biological metrics. The report states that “Researchers found that, incremental increases in price of unhealthy foods resulted in incremental decreases in consumption. In other words, when junk food cost more, people ate it less.”[3]

Thus leaning on the successful tradition of existing “sin” taxes and research that points out the potential for success of a similar solution in this arena, it should be concluded that a fat tax is an important part of a sensible and effective solution to the obesity epidemic.

[1] Altman, A., A Brief History Of: Sin Taxes, published 4/2/2009, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1889187,00.html, accessed 9/12/2011

[2] CDC, Steady Increases in Tobacco Taxes Promote Quitting, Discourage Smoking, published 5/27/2009, http://www.cdc.gov/features/SecondhandSmoke/, accessed 14/9/2011

[3] O'Callaghan, T., Sin taxes promote healthier food choices, published 3/10/2010, http://healthland.time.com/2010/03/10/study-sin-taxes-promote-healthier-food-choices/, accessed 9/12/2011

Counterpoint 

Choosing to introduce a new policy based on experience with a different, seemingly similar case, is not a good idea.

Tobacco and fatty food are vastly different things for a couple of reasons. An obvious one is the fact that fat is in fact necessary nourishment, even the trans-fat kind. Cigarettes on the other hand have absolutely no value to a persons’ health – their detrimental impact is quite infamous.

A different one is the importance of dosage. While smoking is harmful in all doses, indulging in larger amounts of fatty food isn’t. Consuming what we consider “junk food” in moderation has no ill effect on health.[1] This results in legislating for any kind of fat tax much more difficult as the tax needs to allow consuming fat in moderation while preventing excess.

[1] Roberts A., Let Them Eat Cake (Why Junk Food Is OK For Kids, In Moderation), published 5/9/2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-roberts/why-junk-food-is-ok-for-kids_b_858326.html, accessed 9/12/2011

Title 
A fat tax levels out the playing field for healthier food
Point 

An important reason why people continuously turn to unhealthy, fat, sugar and salt laden food, is the simple fact that it’s often cheaper than a more wholesome meal comprised at least in part of fresh produce.

A study done at the University of Washington found that “when they compared the prices of 370 foods… junk foods not only cost less… but junk food prices are also less likely to rise as a result of inflation.”[1]

A similar conclusion was reached by a group of Australian researchers, who found that the prices of healthy food have risen 20 per cent above inflation, while the harmful counterpart have actually dropped below inflation – as much as 20 per cent below.[2]

Noting that obesity is more prevalent in groups of lower socioeconomic status, we find that the price of food is a substantial incentive for consumption.

Thus it is only reasonable to levy a tax against unhealthy, fatty food in order to give healthy food a fighting chance.

[1] Parker-Pope, T., A High Price for Healthy Food, published 12/5/2007, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/a-high-price-for-healthy-food/, accessed 9/12/2011

[2] Burns, C., The rising cost of healthy foods, published 10/16/2008, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-10-15/the-rising-cost-of-healthy-foods/542604, accessed 9/12/2011

Counterpoint 

While the tax might level out the playing field, it does so to the detriment of those that would need our protection the most.

Instead of making healthy food more accessible, we would make all foods less accessible – a truly nonsensical and harmful situation that we should do our utmost to avoid. Moreover, given that many individuals in lower socio-economic groups will have become used to eating “junk” food, when prices rise they will not necessarily move to the healthier alternative. It is likely that they will stick to what they know, and end up paying more from their limited budgets for it. The end result is likely to be that these people will still buy junk food first but will pay more and thus will not be able to afford any healthier foods.

Title 
A fat tax infringes on individual choice
Point 

Introducing such a tax would constitute an overstepping of the government’s authority. The role of government in a society should not expand further than providing basic services such as education, legal protection, i.e. only the services necessary for a society to function and for the individual’s rights to be protected.

Such a specific tax is completely uncalled for and very unreasonable in the context of a fair society with a government that knows its place in it.

Protecting the individual should go no further than the protection against the actions of a third person. For instance: we can all agree that governments should put measures in place to protect us from thieves, scammers, etc. But should it also protect us from frivolous spending? Limit us in the number of credit cards we can own? Tell us how we can invest our money?

Of course not. But what this tax does is exactly that – it is punishing the citizens for a specific choice they are making by artificially inflating its cost.

Thus it is clear that levying such a tax against a specific choice an individual should be able to legitimately make is a clear overstepping of the government’s authority.[1]

[1] Wilkinson, W., Tax the fat, not their food, published 7/26/2011, http://www.economist.com/node/21524522, accessed 12/9/2011

Counterpoint 

Such a limited view of the role of government may be something we have seen in the past, but even conservative governments today are warming to the ideas of social support, progressive taxation, etc.

This shows a clear trend that the perception of government is changing – and rightly so. The challenges of the 21st century are vastly different from those of a hundred or more years ago, when that idea of government was popular or mainstream.

Given the very recent and very cataclysmic events involving the world’s economy, that were arguably sparked by some very bad financial choices made by consumers, one could think that societies around the globe would be more than ever inclined to answer yes to those questions.

In fact, what the government is doing in this case is respecting its boundaries – it cannot ban certain choices of food outright, although this might be the fastest solution. What it’s doing instead is providing a disincentive for a certain individually and societally harmful choice. That sort of action is entirely legitimate, as it doesn’t infringe on a person’s right to make a certain choice, yet it awards those who make the socially conscious one and it also protects the society in general from harm, since it takes important steps to reduce medical spending.

Title 
A tax is not an effective instrument to fight obesity
Point 

There are very legitimate concerns whether artificially increasing the cost of fatty food by specifically targeting it with a tax would have a significant effect on the obesity trend.

In fact, research shows that a fat tax would produce only a marginal change in consumption – not the dramatic shift in public awareness the proponents of the fat tax are hoping for. The reason, LSE researchers believe, is simple: “those on the very poorest diets will continue to eat badly.”[1]

Other than the economic reasons for such behavior, it could be argued that is also a thing of habit and culture: fast fatty food is quick, accessible and tasty.[2] Thus while a tax might be useful in reducing things such as the use of cigarettes – which are at heart an unnecessary “luxury” and thus more easily affected by the price – eating food, whether junk or not, is necessary. It also seems that the fast fatty kind of food is fulfilling a specific need, a need for a quick, tasty and filling meal, something people consider worth paying good money for.

The fight against obesity ought to be multifaceted, complex and well thought out – and a fat tax is none of those things. We should approach the issue with more cunning and introduce other programs: such as increasing the availability of healthy food by introducing healthy vending machines;[3] increasing the amount of physics exercise by requiring it in school, improving possibilities for recreation and access to public transportation thus encouraging people to burn more calories[4] and, most importantly, proper education on the topic if we want to create lasting change.[5]

[1] Tiffin, R., Salois, M., A fat tax is a double whammy for the poor – it will do little to prevent obesity in those on lower incomes, and will hurt them financially, published 9/2/2011,  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2011/09/02/fat-tax-will-do-little-to-prevent-obesity-amongst-the-poor/, accessed 9/12/2011

[2] Hitti, M., Top 11 Reasons For Fast Food's Popularity, published 12/3/2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/12/03/health/webmd/main4644837.shtml, accessed 9/14/2011

[3] Yara, S., Best And Worst Vending Machine Snacks, published 10/6/2005, http://www.forbes.com/2005/10/05/vending-foods-health-cx_sy_1006feat_ls.html, accessed 9/14/2011

[4] CDC, Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States, published 7/24/2009, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5807a1.htm, accessed 9/14/2011

[5] Bunce, L., ‘Fat tax’ solutions ignore wider social factors driving junk food habits, published 8/16/2010, http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/563765/fat_tax_solutions_ignore_wider_social_factors_driving_junk_food_habits.html, accessed 9/12/2011

Counterpoint 

Though one might be inclined to agree with the statement, that a fat tax on its own would be insufficient to solve the problem of rising obesity, it is also simply not the case.

There are numerous educational campaigns underway, from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s school dinners to the first ladies ‘Let’s move’ that are effectively targeting that aspect of the fight against obesity.

What is needed to balance these is tangible action by the government that is able to underwrite and solidify what these campaigns are saying. In short, to help our society practice what we preach.

Title 
It hits the most vulnerable part of society hardest
Point 

The practical consequence of an additional tax on what the government considers fatty unhealthy food will disproportionately affect the poorest part of the population, who often turn to such food due to economic constraints.

These were the concerns that stopped the Romanian government from introducing a fat tax in 2010. Experts there argued, that the countries people keep turning to junk food simply because they are poor and cannot afford the more expensive fresh produce. What such a fat tax would do is eliminate a very important source of calories from the society’s economic reach and replace the current diet with an even more nutritionally unbalanced one. Even the WHO described such policies as “regressive from an equity perspective.”[1]

Clearly, the government should be focusing its efforts on making healthy fresh produce more accessible and not on making food in general, regardless if it’s considered healthy or not, less accessible for the most vulnerable in our society.

[1] Stracansky, P., 'Fat Tax' May Hurt Poor, published 8/8/2011, http://www.nationofchange.org/%E2%80%98fat-tax%E2%80%99-may-hurt-poor-1312817364, accessed 9/12/2011

Counterpoint 

Even if this policy might cause some families to spend more on their food – even more than they feel like they can afford – it still is more important to start significantly dealing with the obesity epidemic. We feel that nothing short of forcing these low income families – which are also the ones where obesity is most prevalent – to finally change their eating habits will make a dent in the current trend.

But there is a silver lining here. These are also the families that are afflicted most by obesity related diseases. Thus spending a couple dollars more on food now will – necessarily – save them tens of thousands in the form of medical bills.

Reducing obesity will also make them more productive at work and reduce their absenteeism, again offsetting the costs of this tax.[1]

We should look at this tax as a form of paying it forward – spending a little time and effort now and reap the benefits for the individual and the society in the future.

[1] ACOEM, Obesity Linked To Reduced Productivity At Work, published 1/9/2008, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/93402.php, accessed 9/14/2011

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