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Monday, August 27, 2012

Does America Need a Fat Tax?

Dedicated readers,

Have any of you ever heard talk about state or federal governments putting in place a "fat tax"?

Our country has become the poster child for obesity in the modern world. While there are still around 1 billion people in the world that go to bed hungry, the USA and some other 1st world countries (I'm talking about you Australia and England!) are facing an obesity epidemic where, according to the 2010 WHO report, over 68% of the adult population is overweight and 34% are obese.

So.....what actions do we take to right the ship?

Some might argue that it is each person's own responsibility to maintain their health by eating better and exercising regularly. I think this is a logical thought process and everyone should be able to show a little restraint at the local all-you-can-eat $9.99 dinner buffet, or at least run a couple miles the next day to work it off.

However, some people have taken a different approach to possibly curtailing our intake of fatty, sugary and generally unhealthy foods. They argue that humans are unable to restrain themselves from eating the cheap, convenient, and often unhealthy foods that on-the-go Americans find themselves indulging in way too often. From a scientist's perspective, I find myself agreeing more and more with this argument because we are innately programmed through our sensory systems to prefer the foods that are more calorie-dense. To add even more credence to this, a 2002 study by Horgen and Brownell in the Journal of Health Psychology indicates that eating behavior may be more responsive to price increases than nutritional education.

Apart from the possible reduction in intake of unhealthy foods and drinks, a fat tax does offer some additional advantages. The tax revenue could be used to offset medical costs generated by obesity-linked health conditions, to improve nutrition education and to incentivize physical activity.

There are also many arguments against a fat tax. As a supporter of small government, I can appreciate those that don't want Big Brother involved in our food choices and telling us what we can and cannot eat. One of the most compelling arguments against is that a fat tax would be regressive, disproportionately affecting the poor. The poor typically rely more heavily on cheaper foodstuffs (typically those that are more highly processed and unhealthy such as fast food), and therefore some argue that a fat tax would be the equivalent of a tax on the poor.

One idea that I've had is that if we tax unhealthy foods, could we use the tax revenue as a way to subsidize healthy foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meat so that food costs wouldn't increase as much?

The biggest hurdle regarding the implementation of a fat tax would be how to decide what foods and drinks would or wouldn't incur the tax. Perhaps we can wait and see what happens in Denmark, one of the only countries that has put a national tax on unhealthy foods.

If you have any input or thoughts on this topic, I would love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading,

Hyatt Frobose

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