A merican health policy has for the past decade acknowledged that an obesity problem exists in all strata of U.S. society. Approximately 127 million adults in the U.S.A. are now labeled overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese. The common public-health answers to the causes of obesity are oversized portions and the vast availability of fast food and junk food. There is no doubt that America has a taste for nonnutritious fast and junk food, but the price discrepancy between this and nutritious, "healthy" food could also be to blame. When choosing what to eat, a consumer must weigh the accessibility, caloric content, and monetary cost of a meal against its nutritional value, taste, and the satisfaction or feeling of fullness it provides. Though this rough model is not meant to be sophisticated or necessarily complete, it makes a few important issues evident. The first is that caloric content and nutritional value must be understood as concepts and consciously considered each time in order to factor into the decision process. The current obesity rates tell us that Americans are making poor dietary choices that are leading to a detrimental aggregate weight gain. It has been argued that, from an evolutionary standpoint, our palates are wired to prefer calorie-dense foods, most of which are high in sugar and fat. When food was scarce, this made sense. With food more available than ever, it works against us, tempting us every time to choose the food and drink that will allow us to store energy in the form of fat. With high-fat and sugar-filled junk and fast food readily accessible, cheap, and tasty, it is no wonder America overdoses on it.
If there were a way to alter a consumer's attitude and therefore dietary preferences by either increasing the price of nonhealthy, fattening foods, decreasing the price of nutritious foods, or both, the Government might be able to evaluate the claim that poor dietary practices are at the center of the obesity problem.
The idea of a "fat tax" or a "Twinkie® tax" is not new. It was pioneered in the mid 1980s by Kelly D. Brownell, a psychologist at Yale University. Brownell proposed that a very small percentage tax be placed on junk and snack foods in order to generate revenue. The objective with a small tax, however, would not be to change dietary choices directly but to use this revenue for specific programs aimed at changing the public's dietary choices and promoting exercise. According to Brownell, the "toxic environment" is at the heart of the rise of obesity. The Federal Government should tax foods with little nutritional value. The less healthy, the higher the tax (as has been proposed for the taxation of the most fuel-inefficient automobiles). The highest taxed foods would quickly become too expensive for consumption, and the revenue generated could be used for "public exercise facilities—bike paths and running tracks" (Brownell and Horgan 2004). This fantasy of the nanny state providing the "positive democracy" (according to Sir Isaiah Berlin's critique) to force the ignorant or misled consumer on to the paths of health and longevity through the destruction of the toxic environment in which they live is seen by many as intrusive and ineffectual. Why assume that supplying exercise facilities is a necessary function of the state rather than full employment and a living wage?
"Fat tax" proposals have been met with general disapproval by the American public though advocated by those involved in public health lobbying, such as Marion
Nestle (Nestle 2003). Though these taxes have the potential to combat the current obesity problem, there are several drawbacks as well. Unlike cigarette taxes for instance, which only tax the demographic at risk (smokers), a fat tax would also tax healthy people who are able to avoid excessive consumption of junk and snack foods. On the other hand, if a fat tax were compensated with a subsidy on certain healthy foods, the only net monetary loss would be the administrative costs of the program itself. These would hopefully be offset by the increased welfare of the general public due to improved health. Another potential problem with a fat tax is that it would disproportionately affect people of lower socioeconomic status. However, this problem would be minimized with the tax/subsidy combination. In conclusion, the potential benefits of a "fat tax" are all merely speculation and there are many potential problems with it. For this reason, the initiative for such a program has been met with great disapproval.
See also Developing World; Obesity Epidemic
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