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Tough love for fat people: Tax their food to pay for healthcare

July 27, 2009 |  2:33 pm

When historians look back to identify the pivotal moments in the nation's struggle against obesity, they might point to the current period as the moment when those who influenced opinion and made public policy decided it was time to take the gloves off.

 As evidence of this new "get-tough" strategy on obesity, they may well cite a study released today by the Urban Institute titled "Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies From the Tobacco Wars."

In the debate over healthcare reform, the added cost of caring for patients with obesity-related diseases has become a common refrain: most recent is the cost-of-obesity study, also released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It finds that as obesity rates increased from 18.3% of Americans in 1998 to 25% in 2006, the cost of providing treatment for those patients' weight-driven problems increased healthcare spending by $40 billion a year.

If you happen to be the 1-in-3 Americans who is neither obese nor overweight (and, thus, considered at risk of becoming obese), you might well conclude that the habits of the remaining two-thirds of Americans are costing you, big time. U.S. life expectancies are expected to slide backward, after years of marching upward. (But that's their statistical problem: Yours is how to make them stop costing you all that extra money because they are presumably making poor choices in their food consumption.)

"Facing the serious consequences of an uncontrolled obesity epidemic, America's state and federal  policy makers may need to consider interventions every bit as forceful as those that succeeded in cutting adult tobacco use by more than 50%," the Urban Institute report says. It took awhile -- almost 50 years from the first surgeon general's report on tobacco in 1964 -- to drive smoking down. But in many ways, the drumbeat of scientific evidence and the growing cultural stigma against obesity already are well underway -- as any parent who has tried to bring birthday cupcakes into her child's classroom certainly knows.

Key among the "interventions" the report weighs is that of imposing an excise or sales tax on fattening foods. That, says the report, could be expected to lower consumption of those foods. But it would also generate revenues that could be used to extend health insurance coverage to the uninsured and under-insured, and perhaps to fund campaigns intended to make healthy foods more widely available to, say, low-income Americans and to encourage exercise and healthy eating habits.

If anti-tobacco campaigns are to be the model, those sales taxes could be hefty:  The World Health Organization has recommended that tobacco taxes should represent between two-thirds and three-quarters of the cost of, say, a package of cigarettes;  a 2004 report prepared for the Department of Agriculture suggested that, for "sinful-food" taxes to change the way people eat, they may need to equal at least 10% to 30% of the cost of the food.

And although 40 U.S. states now impose modest extra sales taxes on soft drinks and a few snack items, the Urban Institute report suggests that a truly forceful "intervention" -- one that would drive down the consumption of fattening foods and, presumably, prevent or reverse obesity -- would have to target pretty much all the fattening and nutritionally empty stuff we eat: "With a more narrowly targeted tax, consumers could simply substitute one fattening food or beverage for another," the reports says.

Of course, the United States also would have to adopt extensive menu- and food-labeling changes that would make "good foods" easily distinguishable from the bad ones subject to added taxes. Not to worry though: Several European countries, most notably Great Britain, have led the way in this area.

And here's the payoff: Conservatively estimated, a 10% tax levied on foods that would be defined as "less healthy" by a national standard adopted recently in Great Britain could yield $240 billion in its first five years and $522 billion over 10 years of implementation -- if it were to begin in October 2010. If lawmakers instituted a program of tax subsidies to encourage the purchase of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, the added revenue would still be $356 billion over 10 years.

That would pay for a lot of healthcare reform, which some have estimated will cost as much as $1 trillion to implement over the next ten years.

There can be little doubt that lobbyists for the food, restaurant and grocery industries would come out swinging on any of these proposals. But the report cites evidence of a turning political tide for proposals that would hold the obese and other consumers of nutritionally suspect food accountable for their choices. A recent national poll found that 53% of Americans said they favored an increased tax on sodas and sugary soft drinks to help pay for healthcare reform. And even among those who opposed such an idea, 63% switched and said they'd favor such a tax if it "would raise money for health-care reform while also tackling the problems that stem from being overweight."

-- Melissa Healy

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Comments (831)

Ironic that the government has long forced food manufacturers to choose gov-subsidized high fructose corn syrup over healthier sugars-- a well known fact that HFCS is one of the leading causes of obesity, actually robbing the "good foods" people eat of vital nutrients and fooling the body into thinking it is always hungry. Real reason Europeans and others are generally svelter? Look at the ingredient list in Coca Cola over there. Plain sugar.

Ironic that the government has long forced food manufacturers to choose gov-subsidized high fructose corn syrup over healthier sugars-- a well known fact that HFCS is one of the leading causes of obesity, actually robbing the "good foods" people eat of vital nutrients and fooling the body into thinking it is always hungry. Real reason Europeans and others are generally svelter? Look at the ingredient list in Coca Cola over there. Plain sugar.

What about those who aren't fat who might enjoy eating this food? Should they pay tax for the fat people's behavior? You need to get at the root of the problem and that is make fat people pay through extra charges on plane seating, bus rides, anything that causes an extra expense on the part of society. Make fat people pay!

You don't wake up one morning only to discover an extra 200 lbs attached to your rear end. Fat people make extremely poor choicesd everyday and literally watch themselves grow to proportions that are now extremely dangerous to their health and my pocketbook. If they are not willing to control themselves, I am not willing to pay for their bad life choices.

Divide and tax, tax the other guy because [fill in your reason]. These socialists you liberal saps elected won't be happy until they have it all and yes... they will find a reason [fill in the reason] to take YOURS.

I think we would have been better off electing Erkle. America has become a joke nation led by a joke president and a joke congress and soon the joke will be on you as you are taxed into oblivion. (to the tune of "Send in the Clowns")

"Foods that are less healthy"? Who is going to decide that? Can we say Big Brother? Let's see...the govt will tell you what kind of car to drive, how much energy to use, what doctor you see, and now what foods you can eat without being taxed. this really what you want?

What goes around comes around. People eagerly jumped on the bandwagon years ago when a group, smokers, were made the cash cow for everyone else's health issues. Hey, all those smokers started eating junk food along with all the already existing fat people. You want to target a group? Go after those getting all the cosmetic surgeries like boob jobs, butt lifts, botox injections, hair transplants, stomach stapling, nose jobs, chin lifts etc, etc. We might even stem the flow of people who really want to be real doctors but have chosen to be cosmetic surgeons because the insurance companies have taken over running, ruining healthcare in this country. If we need more real doctors, take some time and take a real look at why more young people aren't becoming medical doctors. I recently had my appendix taken out. The bill was over $31,000. The surgeon only got $2,800. Good grief, that's peanuts compared to what call girls make in a night.

Forget the food, tax each and every flush, something we all do several times a day.

I think we should also tax exercise equipment and apparel. After all look at how many of them are clogging up the health system with self inflicted injuries such as twisted ankles, bad knees, hip replacements, torn rotator cuffs, back problems and many other ailments. I think just about everyone who’s played a sport has had to see a Doctor at one time or another so they are adding to our cost too.

Oh so you know. I bike 10 miles a day and work out. I am not a fat obese person, just real about how stupid this theory is.

...because you're too stupid to do anything for yourself.

There is nothing so widely believed with so little actual proof as "obesity causes health problems". I have seen dozens of studies that showed obesity actually improved health outcomes and every one was called a "paradox". As obesity becomes more common and life expectancy improves, it is time to stop attacks and look at the actual evidence.

What's funny about the raging health care debate is that I have yet to see any statistics on how many of the current (alleged) "uninsured" are obese.

I bet as a percentage it's surprisingly higher than the 30 some odd percent you would find in the population in general.

In other words, I would think that substantially more than 30% of the uninsured would be obese. Reason being, obesity is in part a socioeconomic condition as is being uninsured.

So, any projections as to what the cost of suddenly providing public health insurance to these people would be are probably underestimates. No surprise.

More on point, new taxes suck. As do all taxes.

who gets to decide who is over weight and who is not

who gets to decide who is over weight and who is not

How about eliminating the subsidies for high fructose corn syrup? Changing the way that Congress and big agri-businesses interact would help. If you look at the relationship between our govenment (at all levels) and Big Tobacco, it is not hard to draw some disturbing conclusions about who is paying Congress, and who is paying for it.

That won't solve the obesity problem. Not all obese people got that way by simply eating 2 cartons of twinkies a day. They became obese because they over eat and don't get adequate exercise. To really give incentive for a person to lose weight you have to make thier obesity be costly to them and them alone. Raise thier insurance rates.

When no one can afford to buy tobacco, who's gonna pay for your health programs?... such stupid policies.

Wait a minute, just a thought. What if you're not overweight and enjoy a soda now and then or God forbid, a Big Mac. Do those people have to pay the hefty tax too? What? They do! So, let's see here, we want to put the snack makers out of business now. More unemployment? And, of course, that will prevent obesity, correct? I mean, you couldn't get fat by overeating say ... BREAD? You know, bread - a staple in every diet. How about Apple Pie (is that a snack too)? Who catergorizes these things? Cereal? How about home made (fill in your favorite pastry here)? So, let's summarize: the fit will be taxed excessively too (punishment for 25% of their friends being obese), we'll put those nasty "snack makers" out of business (who may also make so called "healthy foods" too) and we'll punish all those who made the terribly bad choice of deciding to work for those demon "snack makers" by putting them out of work. Great plan!!!! Who's idea was this? Just want to get the spelling of the names and addresses correct.

Hey, I have another great idea, let's outlaw the obese from having cars - let's get them bicycling. That should help finish off the American auto business. But, hey, think of what it would do for the bicycle business (made in China, of course).

Ok, let's cost more jobs. I am assuming fast food would be included, and teen employment was double digets this summer. Everything they do to "help" us costs more jobs.............what a bunch of idiots. So much for not taxing the poor.....

How about removing the subsidies that create the industry for corn syrup? That is what is causing the diabetes epidemic. Why is soda pop so cheap? Why is corn syrup in nearly every food on super market shelves?

So let me get this straight. Government taxes us to subsidize corn, which supports a corn sweetener industry whose products find their way into nearly every food, and creates an obesity and health epidemic that swamps our health care institutions. So to fix the problem, government wants to tax the sweetener?


The problem with this is when people quit buying these items where will the Government get the taxes from then. I was a smoker. I quit because I was tired of all the taxes that kept being put on them. Which I'm sure others have done also. So when the masses that were smoking quit, and no longer buying where will the Government go to get more of YOUR money? Instead of making the Corporations use HEALTHIER ingredients,the Government has to increase taxes on the CONSUMER. So that they can make more for them and the Corporations. The elected officials no longer work for YOU. They work for the Corporations, that fill their pockets full of money. Why should they even earn a salary, when they continually take from the lobbyist, and special intrest groups.

I don't want the government taxing my food.

Enough is enough of this "big brother" crap.

Too many people are willing to sacrifice personal freedom for political correctness in every aspect of our lives.

"Fun" of any type is being outlawed by the nanny state.

If this does work as planned, then what about job loss? If fewer people eat "bad" food then the companies will need fewer employees since they would not produce as much product.

Is taxing things to change behaviour in the U.S. constitution somewhere?
Please explain where I can find this provision.

Ah, so the food Nazis are coming out of the woodwork. First it was smoking, now snack foods. How long before they decide any meat but fish isn't healthy and tax you extra for that? How long before pasta noodles are seen as being "unhealthy?" And what about bottled water? The plastic bottles aren't eco-friendly, so surely they need to tax that at a higher rate. And so on and so forth.

Of course, anyone that thinks the money from this would actually only go to healthcare is naive in the extreme.

Gotta love the fact that people that work and earn their own money are constantly finding they have new penalties to pay to subsidize those that don't or to fund government nannies that think they know what's best for the rest of us.



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