Can taxes and bans really curb obesity?

Fighting this epidemic won’t be as easy as labeling things “good” or “bad.”

July 11, 2012
KEYWORDS illinois / obesity / sin tax
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crystal lindell
Crystal Lindell 

The thing about obesity is that it’s nothing like smoking.

I know. I know. It blows (pun intended) that we have to come up with new ways to fight the latest epidemic. I mean, learning from our war on cigarettes would make this so much easier. Key points: Tax it to death, ban it.

Alas, it is not to be. Food, unfortunately, is too complicated for such a black-and-white approach.

Let’s start with the “tax it to death” strategy.  Both popular and profitable, it’s the long-time favorite approach to combating the big three — smoking, drinking and gambling. And who is going to argue with a technique that officials claim will lower taxes AND make people healthier? Nobody. That’s who.

However, when it comes to food, sin taxes get sticky faster than you can say deep-fried Snickers.

It sounds simple enough. Tax candy. Well, what do you define as “candy”? Does it have to have a certain percentage of sugar in it? Or does it need to be sold in a certain part of the store? Or do you want to focus on the flour content, like Illinois did? If it has no flour, it must be a candy, right? Well, not exactly. The qualification means that in the Land of Lincoln, Kit Kats don’t qualify as candy.

Fine, you say, just tax sugar, like they’re planning to do in Denmark. Well, it is true that Danes can expect to see sugar taxed at a higher rate soon. That should solve the problem. Right? But, then what’s to stop food makers from simply switching to artificial sweeteners, which some studies have shown can cause diabetes and actually trick the body into feeling more hungry? Not to mention the fact that some relatively healthy foods contain our favorite culprit. Yogurt anyone?

All right, so taxing away obesity isn’t as easy as it sounds. Well, then maybe we could just start banning stuff and hope for the best. It seemed to at least help with smoking, right? You can’t even light up in a bar in many states any more, and everyone is happier for it.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was inspired by the strategy as well it seems. He’s proposed banning “big gulp” portions of soda, specifically, any sugar drinks over 16 oz.

To the naysayers, he reportedly didn’t mince words. "If you want to kill yourself, I guess you have the right to do it. We're trying to do something about it,” he says.

Wow, so drinking my extra large soda from the gas station now qualifies as “killing myself”? Crap. I’m so dead.

Aside from the obvious “nanny state” issue, the ban doesn’t seem to take into account the huge profits food vendors rely on from selling soda, as well as the fact that it seems like it wouldn’t take long to serve a 17-oz. cup of soda and call it “two servings.”

Look, as someone who has personally struggled with my weight, I know first hand how tempting it can be to think of food as a zero-sum game — either you eat it or you don’t. Either it’s good or it’s bad. Either it should be taxed and banned or it shouldn’t.

The problem is you have to eat food every single day to live. And ingredients and how bodies respond to those ingredients make food too complex to simply label any one item as “good” or “bad.” If fighting obesity were easy, everyone would already be wearing a size 4 because they would have figured out how to do it themselves.

That doesn’t mean we need to lose hope though. The solution is just going to be a lot more daunting than people want to admit.

It starts with more education about how to navigate the complexities of eating healthy, but it also includes creating healthy foods for $1 menus and 50-cent candy bins; finding creative ways to encourage people to exercise, such as giving people time off work to workout; as well as a cultural shift in attitudes to obesity.

When people stop viewing it as a vanity problem that sufferers deserve for their weak will power, and start viewing it as the complex issue it really is, maybe we can actually make some progress.

Now excuse me while I eat a Kit Kat bar. I’m told these things don’t even qualify as “candy.” Who knew?

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