Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fat Tax, Thin Subsidy Continued

This is the third in a series of articles about the obesity epidemic, the food industry and solutions for change by guest poster Sharon Bala. Read the first post here and the second post here.

In my last post, I outlined an idea for combatting our obesity epidemic: slap a sin tax on processed and junk food and use the revenue to subsidize raw fruits, vegetables and milk (and, if there's money left over, other healthy-living measures). There will be opposition - both from individuals and industry - so let's look at some of the arguments against the proposal.

This tax scheme will only hurt low-income families

By subsidizing fresh fruits, vegetables and milk, this scheme would actually help low income families most of all. Research has shown that low-income is correlated with higher rates of obesity and all the associated health concerns. By making healthy food cheaper, we'll help everyone, especially those with lower incomes.

 The government has no place in the fridges of the nation

And yet seat belts are mandatory, marijuana is illegal, and you need a license to own a fire arm. For those people who say that drugs are dangerous and guns kill, I counter with the following very abridged list: diabetes, dialysis and wait lists for donor kidneys.

Did you know that the percentage of trans fats in the blood streams of breast-fed babies is 7 per cent in Canada and 1 per cent in Spain? Pregnant and nursing women are warned about the dangers of alcohol and cigarettes. Where's the surgeon general's warning on the frozen pot pie?

It won't work. Taxes and subsidies won't change people's behaviour

Rising cigarette prices have been a deterrent against smoking. A Yale University study found that for every 10 per cent price hike in soft drinks, consumption decreases by 7.8 per cent. The study also quoted an industry trade publication (Beverage Digest) that reported more favourable results: when Coke prices went up 12 per cent, sales went down by 14.6 per cent.

There is also a good argument to be made that so-called fat taxes and thin subsidies are a necessary first step in a larger movement of healthier living. If fat is the new nicotine then consider this: the anti-smoking movement began with a few people sounding the alarm, then growing media coverage, heavy advocacy and lobbying on the part of individuals and non-profits (against corporations with deep pockets and sleek PR and ad teams). The government imposed heavy taxes, put cigarettes behind the counter, making them difficult to access, imposed no-smoking areas and then broadened those areas. Schools began showing children pictures of black lungs and then those images migrated onto the packages of the cigarettes themselves. And eventually, somewhere down the line, the light bulb went off and everyone now agrees that smoking is bad and it has become almost socially unacceptable. 

When the government imposes a financial burden on behaviours and objects, it is sending a message that we as a society believe those behaviours and objects are unhealthy. That message validates the voice of researchers and activists (just like loosening regulations on caffeine content in drinks marketed to kids validates the marketing messages of the food industry). And from there, the movement gains momentum.

The challenge that taxes and subsidies won't work is perhaps the most persuasive argument against this proposal of taxes and subsidies. Because of course you never know if something will work unless you try. Which begs the question: isn't it worth a try?

There's one more post left. Don't touch that dial.

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