THE BLOG

Food Fight: Fat Taxes Won't Slim Down Americans

02/20/2013 05:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

Most Americans are very overweight. About two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in the U.S. are too heavy or obese. And with skyrocketing levels of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gout and even tooth decay, there's a corresponding high cost associated with it to taxpayers, employers, and society at large.

So now there's a movement led by a coalition of politicians, social scientists, activists and educators building to curb the caloric intake of Americans, which includes taxing fatty foods and drinks.

The latest proposal involving a "fat tax" was made last week in Nevada, when legislation was proposed to impose a 5-cent tax on fast-food items containing more than 500 calories. That bid came on the heels of a request by a consumer group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest that week petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to set a "safe level" for added sugars in our beverages.

Politicians eager to raise more revenue for dwindling coffers caused in part by higher medical costs associated with obesity are now pigging out on the idea of implementing a "fat tax" of high caloric, sugary and fatty foods to curb American's unhealthy appetites. The idea is that if high caloric food and drinks sold in fast food restaurants and groceries are highly taxed, consumers will stop buying them, or at least slow down their consumption of them.

This type of "sin tax" worked well in reducing the consumption of tobacco products over the last decade. High tobacco taxes significantly reduced cigarette smoking and other tobacco use. When President Obama raised federal tobacco taxes by 62 percent days after he took office, the numbers of smokers have since decreased by 3 million, and the US Treasury raised more than $30 billion in new revenue.

Here's the real problem. Despite the government telling us (and lying to us, too) that there's very little inflation, the price of healthy foods and staples are high in price. Walk down the outer aisles of an American grocery store, where the "healthy foods," are sold, and look how pricey fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy and fish have become to eat. Then walk down the inner aisles, where the bad stuff is sold, and look how much more of a bang for the buck you get from the fatty foods like a box of pasta or a bag of white rice. And organic foods? They cost even more.

And fast food is really not cheap anymore, either. In case you haven't been to a fast food restaurant lately, except for the dollar menus, which act as leaders to bring in consumers, the price of that fatty fare has substantially gone up too. But even with these increases, you can still buy three to four Whoppers for the price of a piece of steak or salmon in a half-decent restaurant.

Unlike smoking, it will be more difficult to curb the eating habits of fat Americans, either by taxing them or controlling the content and distribution of fatty and sugary foods. Case in point: Look at how the federal government tried to change the glutinous way American students ate in public schools by banning fattening foods and serving healthier alternatives. The kids simply stopped eating at lunch time and the costlier, healthier cuisine landed up in the garbage.

It's not just America. In Denmark, a "fat tax" imposed on foods high in saturated fats was rescinded after one year after the Danish revolted against it. Instead of paying it, many Danish just waddled across the border to German and Sweden to purchase cheaper butter and ice cream instead.

And if you look at how the sin tax monies raised on tobacco were allocated once they were collected, only 5 percent monies raised since 1998 in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies have gone back into anti-smoking programs. It's extremely doubtful that monies raised with "fat taxes" will be used mostly to bring down the cost of healthier foods or to educate consumers. Instead, these revenues more likely will be used to pay higher Medicaid costs that are straining government budgets.

So here's the skinny on "fat taxes." Even if its 5 cents a Big Mac, they are really nothing more than taxes that we overweight Americans really can't afford to pay. Imposing a fat tax is nothing more than paternalistic politicians really saying, "Let them eat fat-free cake."

An edited version of this article appeared in The Florida Voices on Feb. 18, 2012

Steven Kurlander is an attorney and communications strategist. He blogs at Kurly's Kommentary and writes weekly columns in The Sun Sentinel and The Florida Voices. His email is kurly@stevenkurlander.com

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