Monday, November 28, 2011

Sin Taxes and Subsidies

This is the second 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.

Here's one simple solution to the obesity epidemic: impose sin taxes and use the revenue to subsidize healthy foods.

Slap a hefty surcharge on chips, pop, chocolate, cookies and pre-packaged dinners (frozen pizzas, microwave meals, etc.). If a bag of cookies is $2, make it $4. Yes, double the price. This is a serious problem that needs a hard-nosed solution.

The revenue from the surcharge would subsidize the cost of raw fruits, vegetables and milk, particularly in parts of the country where fresh produce is very expensive and hard to come by (Labrador, the north, etc.). Two litres of coke is cheeper than 2L of milk. Is it any wonder so many people are drinking a glass of pepsi with dinner instead of milk?

Beyond food subsidies, there are any number of ways to invest the money: tax breaks for gym memberships, programming for schools or neighbourhoods with high rates of obesity (ie. funding for community soccer leagues; the beauty of soccer is that kids at any income level can play), playground equipment in parks.

One valuable idea is either free or heavily subsidized sessions with a nutritionist or dietician and cooking classes. Coupons for these sessions/ classes could be given out by family doctors either to people who self select (ie. ask for it) or to people who have poor eating habits (which every GP should know simply from doing a basic history).

People want to be healthy. The problem is that it's easier and cheaper to be unhealthy (especially if family resources in the shape of money and parental time are stretched thin) and let's face it - many people just don't know where to begin.

It's great that we have nutritional labels on things but they aren't always easy to understand or compare. How many people know that trans-fat free doesn't really mean what it says? Should you buy the eggs with the extra omega-3s? Ideally these are lessons we learn from our parents. But that is assuming our parents learned these lessons from their parents and if they did not, the cycle of poor health perpetuates. The health-care intervention comes in the form of the dietician/ nutritionist.

Many people have a fear of the kitchen. No one taught them to cook and so they believe they won't like it, can't do it or that it takes time that they don't have. If you've watched Jamie Oliver on his Food Revolution you'll know that he's on a mission to teach people that cooking can be easy and fun and doesn't need to take a lot of time. That's where subsidized or free community cooking classes come in. They could be run by dietitians or nutritionists or staff from cooking colleges. In places where there are universities, get the local academics involved to talk to participants about the benefits of healthy eating. The important thing is to make sure that there's no food industry involvement. No cooking classes brought to you by Nestle or ConAgra. None of that nonsense. Just individual people who believe in healthy eating and want to share their knowledge.

Who knows? Maybe the classes will be the seed that grows into local communities of new cooks who can support each other once the classes are done. Maybe four people start a Sunday night food swap. Or regular potlucks where they can experiment with new recipes.

What I'm advocating is that we teach the proverbial man to fish. And if we do, I believe he won't be tempted by the frozen fish fingers.

In my next article, I'll look at the arguments against this approach. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Gudahtt said...

The only issue I see with this is deciding which foods are "healthy" and which are "unhealthy". Fresh fruits and vegetables are a no-brainer, but plenty of so-called "unhealthy" food is perfectly healthy if it's not eaten in excess. Certain other foods could be healthy or unhealthy depending on your diet and lifestyle.

I've heard of a similar tax in another country... Australia or something maybe, not sure, where anything with a high fat content is taxed heavily. But that would be the wrong way to go about it, fat is not unhealthy. We need fat. Just not too much of it.