A new study published in the British Medical Journal suggests adding a high tax on unhealthy food and beverages may diminish the rising rates of obesity.
According to the study, a 20 percent tax placed on sugar-sweetened drinks could drop obesity rates by 3.5 percent and prevent 2,700 heart-related deaths each year.
An ABC news article pointed to previous studies that claimed the dramatic tax increase on cigarettes contributed to the lower numbers of smokers in the U.S., and thus, concluded a fat tax might be just as effective.
Additionally, the study proposes subsidizing the cost of healthy food — once people decide what healthy food is — to make it more affordable to greater numbers of people.
Do we really want a bunch of bureaucrats to adjudicate which foods are healthy and unhealthy, because not all foods that are high in fat are unhealthy, which would be reason enough to oppose a blanket fat tax.
For example, salmon and avocados are high in unsaturated fat — and neither of these foods are unhealthy. Dark chocolate is high in sugar, but eating chocolate in moderation has documented health benefits [see here and here], and may even aid in weight reduction.
Researchers believe that despite chocolate’s high calorie content, chocolate contains ingredients that may favor weight loss rather than fat synthesis.
Experts agree that it’s important to first distinguish what food and drink should be labeled “unhealthy” before imposing a tax.
“A focus on sugar and refined starch is better, but as a first step I favor a focus just on sugar-sweetened beverages as the evidence is strongest for this,” said Dr. Walt Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
According to the HBO documentary series, “Weight of the Nation,” one out of five children drink three or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day, accounting for an extra meal.
Dr. Jana Klauer, a New York physician, characterizes soda as a “gateway drug” to obesity. “Sugary soda is nothing more than liquid calories which stimulate appetite,” said Klauer.
Multiple Factors Lead to Obesity
Martin Binks, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health, points out that unhealthy foods and drinks are only a small contributor to many factors that lead to obesity.
“Taxation may shift food choices away from those foods, but it provides no guarantee that the consumer will not simply shift to other unhealthy options and or continue to consume unhealthy quantities of all foods while also getting inadequate physical activity,” said Binks.
Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine shares Martin Binks’ perception that food is not the only contributing factor to obesity.
Ayoob believes the focus should be in physical activity programs and incentives and tax breaks for those who implement healthy behaviors.
“To solve the obesity crisis, people don’t need more legislation, they need more motivation,” he said.
The bottom line is that a fat tax would be paid by those least able to absorb the extra costs: the poor.