How would you like to trim the deficit, healthcare costs, and your waistline in one fell swoop?
That’s what a fat tax can do. it’s been embraced by much of Europe, and the idea is gaining traction in Washington.
Hungary’s so-called ‘hamburger tax’ goes into effect next month, just a few weeks ahead of Denmark’s ‘saturated fat’ tariff, targeting pork, cheese, and butter. Finland is looking to add a fat tax to those it already levies on salt and sugar-laced foods. Germany, Romania, and Spain all have similar legislation moving through government channels.
Instead of taxing fatty foods, Japan taxes body fat. The Ministry of Health requires businesses to administer obesity checks for all employees and their family members ages 40 to 74. The legislated upper limit for the waistline is a strict 33½ in. for men, and 35½ in. for women, beyond which a tax is levied (by comparison, the average waistline in America is 39 in. for men and 37 in. for women).
We actually have some fat tax history in this country. In the months following the 1942 Pearl Harbor attack, a handful of states taxed obese citizens–per excess pound–to encourage them to eat less and preserve food resources for the war effort. The fat tax was revived in the 1990′s when a proposal was floated to tax certain foods and put the proceeds toward nutrition literacy programs. The concept was debated publicly when it was ranked #7 on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 16 Smart Ideas to Fix the World, and the debate grew louder when Rush Limbaugh spearheaded the opposition.
The fat tax debate has stayed with us.
Current supporters include the World Health Organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food writers Mark Bittman (with the New York Times as his soapbox) and Michael Pollan (who contends that the insurance industry is ready to get on board), and President Obama, who supports a tax on soda and other sugary foods.
Congress, though, has shown little enthusiasm for a federal fat tax, although most states are already getting their cut in the form of taxes on junk food and soda. The public, too, consistently shows low approval ratings for the taxes in polls. Critics point to its regressive nature, with the burden falling on lower income Americans who are the biggest consumers of junk food and already spend disproportionately on food, relative to their incomes. And of course the notion of the food police is troubling in terms of both privacy issues and the broader concept of the role of government.
There are few privacies more worthy of protection than what we choose to eat and drink. While these are personal decisions they’re not private ones; not when our healthcare system spends nearly $150 billion dollars annually to treat obesity, nearly as much to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more goes toward the treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancers that are linked to diet.
How do you weigh individual freedoms and social responsibilities?