Junk the Junk Tax Idea

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun
Taxing foods that nutritionists don’t want us to consume is an idea gaining popularity in Canada. Proponents of so-called “fat taxes” offer it as a way to improve diets and reduce the health costs of obesity. The truth however, is that a “fat tax” is a blunt instrument that doesn’t directly deal with the problem of overweight and obese Canadians.

Taxing less healthful food options, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, is often compared to the taxation of cigarettes: a public health measure intended to improve a population’s health and well-being. This misleading comparison ignores a simple reality: consuming cigarettes is directly linked to smoking-related illnesses. The same is not true of less healthful or fattier food options. They not only have some nutritional value, but are also not directly linked to excess weight.

For most people, being overweight or obese is the result of an excess of caloric intake over caloric output. The consumption of less healthful and/or fattier foods when balanced with other foods and exercise will not lead to a person being overweight or obese. Nor will it necessarily lead to poorer health. This absence of a direct connection reveals another serious problem with the idea of a “fat tax:” everyone has to pay it regardless of their girth.

Consider a British Columbian who runs three times a week, plays sports from time to time, eats a well-balanced diet, and is in excellent physical condition. If she desires a chocolate bar everyday with her lunch or likes to relax with a pop and watch a movie on the weekend, why should she pay more to do so?

Notably, in 2010, 44.4 per cent of British Columbians aged 18 and older, and 16.4 per cent of British Columbian youth (aged 12 to 17) reported themselves to be overweight or obese. In other words, flip those statistics over, and a sizable portion of the adult population and the majority of the youth population are neither overweight nor obese by body mass index (the common metric of overweight and obesity) standards.

“Fat taxes” fail to distinguish between those who are overweight/obese and those who are not, and are not guaranteed to reduce overall caloric intake as some hope. Individuals may be relatively unresponsive to changes in the price of the taxed products and may simply switch to other non-taxed but still energy-dense foods. Further, “fax taxes” ignore the complex and manifold causes of obesity.

Of course, unhealthy lifestyles and excess weight can result in costs such as poor overall health, reduced life expectancies, negative effects on mental and emotional wellbeing, lost productivity, restricted activity, and poorer educational performance and skill attainment. However, what is important for public policy is the distribution of those costs (or who actually bears the burden of them).

Upon closer examination, it seems that the majority of the costs listed above are borne directly by the obese individual in terms of lower income, reduced enjoyment of life, and a potentially shorter life span.

The only area where the individual does not bear these costs directly is the increased burden on British Columbia’s tax-financed health care system. Notably, many of the debates and discussions about policies to combat obesity in Canada begin with the health costs imposed on society through Medicare – costs then used to justify government intervention.

Thus, if there is an area where governments have a legitimate role to intervene when it comes to citizens’ weight, it is to resolve the costs imposed by the obese on all taxpayers by reducing the cross-subsidization from non-obese British Columbians to obese British Columbians. Since obesity is in many cases controllable, and since the burden of obesity is borne almost entirely through the Medicare program, obese individuals should therefor pay higher MSP premiums to reflect the additional costs they impose on the publically-financed health care system. Of course, appropriate reductions in the charge for low-income families (to a non-zero level) and for those who are less able to control their weight because of an underlying medical condition should be a part of the plan.

Scaled health premiums will not only gives individuals and parents the incentive to lose their own or their children’s extra pounds, it allows people to choose for themselves whether they wish to lose weight through a better diet, through more exercise, or not at all – a choice individuals should be free to make as long as they do not impost costs on others by doing so.

“Fat taxes” are simply too blunt a policy tool to deal with the prevalence of unhealthy weights and poor diet. Targeted solutions that require individuals to take responsibility for the health costs created by their lifestyle choices are a far smarter solution.

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