A new study says a 20% ‘fat tax‘—on ‘unhealthy foods’ and sugary drinks—would help curb obesity by substituting for the lack of self control that has clearly led to obesity (wink wink). Published in British Medical Journal, the study aggregated data from several countries measuring the effectiveness of food taxes, and found that they can have a positive impact on public health…if they’re significant enough to really make our wallets hurt. There’s so many things wrong with this, I don’t know where to begin. So I’ll just throw out the biggest issues that come to mind:
First, the phrasing: The concept of a “soda tax” isn’t inherently offensive, but calling it a “fat tax” makes it sound a lot like legislated discrimination. I’m all for correcting a food system that makes junk food artificially cheap, but framing it in terms of hitting fat people with financial penalties doesn’t address those problems—it just lends further credence to the myth that fat people are fat because they have an uncontrollable appetite for Twinkies and Coke.
But Twinkies and Coke are only half the problem; making them expensive might deter customers, but it won’t make vegetables cheap. It also won’t make it easier for people in food deserts to access fresh food, and it won’t teach people how to make healthy meals. And what’s really horrifying is that, for people who can literally barely afford to feed their families junk food from the 99-cent store, raising prices on even bad-for-you foods would mean that they basically don’t get to eat enough. So not only would they be malnourished; they’d literally be starving.
There are plenty of other logistical issues, like how we would define “unhealthy” foods, and how difficult it would be to implement. But what’s most frustrating to me about the whole idea of a ‘fat tax’ is that it completely overlooks the fact that those foods are cheap to begin with because of food subsidies.
If you’re not familiar with food subsidies, the basic concept is that the government gives money to certain agricultural industries in order to supplement their income, thereby influencing the cost and supply of certain commodities. In the U.S., the meat and dairy industries get huge boosts from the government, as do corn farmers—which is part of why things like Twinkies, Coke, and cheeseburgers are so damn cheap. Here’s a quick visual, courtesy of Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine:
Lead researcher Oliver Mytton said of the 30 or so international surveys they observed, most situations pointed to the success of taxes on unhealthy food:
Economists generally agree that government intervention, including taxation, is justified when the market fails to provide the optimum amount of a good for society’s well-being. [This] include[s] a failure to appreciate the true association between diet and disease, time inconsistency (preference for short-term gratification over long-term well-being), and not bearing the full health and social costs of consumption.
But, at least in the U.S., the market isn’t “failing’ to provide the optimum amount for society’s good; the government is failing to subsidize the optimum foods for our health. Layering taxes on top of already-dysfunctional production and pricing wouldn’t help make healthy food affordable or accessible; if we can make that happen (and, you know, frame the discussion around real health concerns instead of fat-shaming), I think we won’t even need to debate how to tax junk food.