Taxing 'unhealthy' foods won't reduce obesity

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun and Province, July 2013

It seems health associations are once again calling for a "fat tax;" taxes on foods that some nutritionists and researchers don't want us to eat or drink.

Unfortunately, the lack of sound thinking behind vilifying sugary drinks or less healthful snacks has not changed, nor has the blunt, imprecise, and unfair nature of a "junk food" or sugary drink tax.

No matter the good intentions, taxing certain foods to make us healthier remains bad public policy. There are several reasons why this is so, the most fundamental being that such taxes affect everyone regardless of their girth or lifestyle choices.

Consider the case of a Canadian 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 likes to relax with a pop and watch a movie on the weekend, or enjoy a chocolate bar with lunch, why should she pay more to do so?

Notably, in 2012, 52.5 per cent of Canadians aged 18 and older, and 21.8 per cent of Canadian 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.

"Junk food" or sugary drink taxes not only fail to distinguish between overweight/obese Canadians and those who are not, but they are also a regressive form of taxation. A number of studies have found that diets of less healthy food options are less expensive than diets of healthier food options. Further, lower socioeconomic classes are typically more dependent on fast foods for their nourishment. Both suggest that a tax on less healthful/fattier food options will have a disproportionate effect on lower-income Canadians.

"Junk food" taxes are also not guaranteed to reduce overall caloric intake, as some hope. Importantly, fast food consumption (a common target for a "fat tax") may be relatively unresponsive to price changes because individuals may simply switch to other non-taxed, but still energy-dense (lots of calories per serving size) foods.

Then there is the issue of defining which foods should be taxed and the difficulties therein (think fruit juices for example). That will no doubt require increased bureaucracy: a new agency would need to be created to determine which foods or beverages qualify for the tax and which might be exempted. The proposal that such taxes be offset with subsidies or tax reductions for other more healthful foods or in other areas only compound this problem.

Targeting only one food group, such as sugary beverages, does not necessarily resolve these issues or those outlined above.

Those who wish to vilify soft drinks must also contend with a problematic reality: According to Statistics Canada, soft drink consumption fell 35 per cent in Canada between 1999 and 2012. Yet, obesity has risen over that time.

Fundamentally, how much we eat (of all foods), how much we exercise, and how we live our lives generally (plus genetic factors) determines the size of our waistlines. And even then, the relationship to ill health is not clear and obvious as many studies show some extra weight may be protective.

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. No single food or beverage can be held responsible for weight gain.

Overly simplistic solutions to obesity that vilify an industry or food product are bad public policy. The reality is that "junk food" taxes or sugary drink taxes are ineffective, blunt instruments that fail to recognize the complex and manifold causes of obesity. It’s time we put the idea of such taxes in their rightful place: the junk bin.

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