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Can The Government Tax You Skinny?
A study on taxing unhealthy food and drinks to improve health concluded that placing 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks could help fight obesity and heart-related diseases. However, experts say that this might only make consumers switch to other unhealthy options.
While the rise in obesity rates and cases of heart-related diseases and deaths seen all over the globe makes this seemingly extreme solution commendable, imposing as much as 20% tax even on unhealthy food and drinks might backfire on what is already a poor economy that the United States is facing. Amidst the rising prices of commodities and the lowering value of the US currency, the “fat” tax might just burden Americans even more.
Which Food and Drinks to Tax?
According to a study done by Oxford University’s Department of Public Health, which was published in the British Medical Journal last May, adding a high tax on unhealthy food and drinks may help slow the rising rates of obesity. While previous studies, like the report released in 2010 by a tobacco policy expert at the University of Illinois in Chicago, confirmed that a significant tax increase would prevent thousands of kids from becoming smokers and prompt adult smokers to quit, it is hoped that the “fat” tax would have the same effect.
However, not all foods that are high in fat are considered unhealthy, and food policy experts say this might challenge the notion of imposing a blanket tax. According to Patricia Bannan, R.D., the body needs fat to aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, E, D, and K. Some of these healthy foods include avocados, eggs, olive oil, nuts, nut butters, and fatty fish.
From One Unhealthy Food to Another
Instead of foods high in fat, Walt Willet, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s School of Public Health thinks that it is better to focus on sugar-sweetened beverages. In fact, a 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that levying taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages has the potential to prevent obesity.
According to Martin Binks, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health, consuming unhealthy foods and drinks are only a small contributor to many factors that lead to obesity. He also said that while taxation may shift food choices away from those foods, it doesn’t guarantee that consumers will not simply shift to other unhealthy options or continue to consume unhealthy quantities of all foods while also not getting enough physical activity.
The Risk of Job Loss vs Risk of Obesity
Aside from food policy experts, industry unions also voiced out against the proposition. The American Beverage Association gave a written statement shortly after the study was published, citing a review by researchers at George Mason University that shows a slight decrease in body mass index when a 20 percent tax was imposed on sugar beverages.
The study also found that higher taxes could damage the industry and lead to job losses. But the rising obesity is pertains more risk than possible job loss. Because obesity raises the risk of a host of medical conditions, the obese are absent from work more often than people of healthy weight.
According to health economist Eric Finkelstein of Duke University, even when poor health doesn’t keep obese workers home, it can actually cut into their productivity, as obese workers most likely grapple with pain, shortness of breath, or other obstacles to working all-out. Finkelstein calculated that the very obese lose one month of productive work per year, costing employers an average of $3,792 per very obese male worker and $3,037 per female.
Despite the issues presented by experts and industry unions, many US citizens show support for imposing tax on sugared beverages. According to various US opinion polls, support for sugared beverage taxes ranges from 37% to 72%, with participants tending to be more in favor when the health benefits of fat taxes are emphasized.
With one-third of Americans obese today, up from 15% in the 1980’s, medical costs of obesity surpass $200 billion a year. When health care costs are shared, obesity then becomes a burden for everyone. Because of the government’s health care plans, half of the US’s obesity-related health costs land on taxpayers. In private employer-sponsored health plans, meanwhile, the slim employees pay similar premiums to the overweight.
If at least 20% tax is imposed on unhealthy foods and drinks, this could offset the medical costs, according to a New York private practice nutrition physician Dr. Jana Klauer, if not lower obesity rates.