Junk the Idea of a Junk Food Tax, There are More Practical Ways to Promote Healthy Living

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, 17 October 2006
Gordon Hogg, British Columbia’s minster of state in charge of promoting healthy living, recently floated the idea of imposing a tax on junk food as a way to fight obesity.

There’s an allure to that [a junk food tax], he told reporters after a conference on childhood and adolescent obesity.

While the junk food tax idea is well-intentioned, such a policy would necessitate a significant increase in bureaucracy and end up negatively affecting all British Columbians, regardless of their girth.

Interestingly, Hogg’s program, ActNow B.C., declares on its website that: British Columbians are among the healthiest people in the world! Why, then, would the government want to penalize every single British Columbian, regardless of their level of fitness?

Why should a British Columbian who runs three times a week, plays sports occasionally, eats a balanced diet and is in excellent physical condition pay more to enjoy a mocha with extra chocolate and whipped cream from time to time?

Further, to have any impact the penalty would have to be significant. Hogg estimated the tax on junk food would need to be around 40 per cent to change people’s habits.

He also likened the impact of a junk food tax to the effect that tobacco taxes have on smoking. Tobacco taxes, however, have been found to have a smaller impact than typically thought.

A recent paper by Harvard professors David Cutler and Edward Glaeser examines why Americans are less likely to smoke than Europeans -- 19 per cent of adult Americans smoke compared to 34 per cent in Germany, 27 in France, and 32 per cent in the Netherlands. They found that higher prices (including taxes) could not explain the difference in smoking rates. In fact, cigarettes were found to be 37 per cent cheaper in the U.S. on average than in Europe.

Instead, Cutler and Glaeser found that almost half of the differences in smoking rates between Americans and Europeans can be attributed to the fact Americans have comparatively strong beliefs about the damaging effects of smoking.

If one follows that logic, it seems that education about the damaging impact of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, not junk food taxes, would help change the behaviour of unhealthy and/or obese British Columbians.

The minister was also quick to mention the tax on junk food could finance fitness and nutrition programs. But the provincial government already collects and spends some $34 billion of our hard-earned dollars. Surely some re-prioritization of spending could be accomplished to find the money needed for awareness education.

Another point to consider is the increased bureaucracy needed to impose a junk food tax. First would be a new agency to determine which foods qualify for a junk tax. That would require examination of the vast number of different food items available today.

Given what we know about governments’ ability to do relatively simply tasks (e.g. register guns), does anyone have much faith that the government could efficiently produce a junk food list?

Of course, we must remember that individuals maintaining an unhealthy weight impose costs on society through our tax-financed health care system. Higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other diseases increase health care costs that other British Columbians are forced to fund.

The best way to account for the costs that the obese impose on society is to require these individuals to bear the costs their lifestyle choices impose on others through health care premiums scaled by that cost.

While this would require increased bureaucracy to enact and enforce the change, the task involved is far simpler than what would be required for a junk food tax.

Equally important, such a scaled premium solves the problem of an increased burden on all taxpayers and provides a direct incentive to lose the additional weight. Unlike a junk food tax, to which governments would likely become addicted, the premium would abate entirely when controllable obesity was eliminated.

While politicians are drawn to taxes to fight sinful consumption, they ought to rethink the idea. A junk food tax would be costly and would negatively affect the majority of British Columbians who are already choosing healthier lifestyles.

Targeted solutions that require the obese to take responsibility for the health costs created by their lifestyle choices are a far smarter solution.

It’s time we put the junk food tax in its rightful place -- the junk bin.

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