Tax Rascal

Let Them Eat Cake

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Let Them Eat Cake

After Denmark’s fat tax, many Americans are wondering, “Should we have a fat tax?”

The taxosphere is all abuzz with the news that the government of Denmark recently imposed a so-called ‘fat tax’ on its citizens in an attempt to discourage Danes from consuming fatty foods.

The fat tax increases the price of any food containing more than 2.3% saturated fats by 16 kroner ($2.90) per kilo (2.2lbs). To give you an idea of what kind of real effect the fat tax will have, it will increase the price of a burger by about $0.15 and a small package of butter by about $0.40.

Contrary to what many people assume, the fat tax was not put in place to combat obesity. Danes actually rank below the EU average in terms of obesity. Rather the fat tax was implemented in an attempt to increase Danish life expectancy, which has recently fallen to 78.63, below the OECD average of 79. Denmark, which is ranked 48th in the world for life expectancy, has neighbors that live a lot longer. Germany is ranked 27th and has an average life expectancy of 80.07, Norway is 25th at 80.20, and Sweden is 16th at 81.07 (the US is 50th at 78.37, even lower than Denmark).

The irony (dare I say hypocrisy?) here is that Denmark is one of the world’s major exporters of butter, cheese, and bacon, all major saturated fat culprits. At least all of the exports will help get their life expectancy closer to average.

Though many Danes are on record as disliking the fat tax – in the weeks before it went into effect store shelves were emptied as people hoarded fatty goods – the tax was penned and implemented by Denmark’s outgoing conservative government and passed by a comfortable margin in parliament. And though this fat tax in particular is getting quite a bit of press, it is only the latest in a quiet European trend of governments regulating what ends up on people’s plates.

The French government recently made headlines banning ketchup from the cafeterias of its schools and colleges. Though the government claims the purpose of the ban is to promote healthy eating and combat obesity among the nation’s adolescents, it is also widely acknowledged as an attempt to protect the sacred temple of French cuisine from pollution by a condiment of a foreign extraction. The pernicious American import is allowed just once a week – in another great irony of the food debate – with French fries.

Last month Hungary imposed the so-called “Hamburger Law” which taxes an assortment of unhealthy foods from soda and pastries to salty snacks and food flavorings. Trans fats are already banned in Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark. And Finland and Romania have declared themselves likely to implement a fat tax similar to the one just adopted in Denmark. Even the UK’s Conservative PM David Cameron has expressed his willingness to consider a tax on unhealthy foods.

The Denmark fat tax is even raising questions here in the States about the potential of similar government action. Obviously, if such a fat tax were implemented here, the focus would be on stemming the tide of obesity, not increasing life expectancy (though the former has a more than ancillary effect on the latter). For years there has been vocal support for the idea of a soda tax in America. Now the news about Denmark has many Americans wondering, “Should we have a fat tax?”

Not surprisingly, I’m going to come down on the nay side of this issue.

First, let me steal a feather from the liberal cap. The argument that has traditionally been deployed against fat taxes in countries like the UK is the fact that these taxes have a disproportionate impact on the poor. Unhealthy foods tend to be cheap. Low-income individuals, therefore, would bear the brunt of a fat tax, which would make feeding their families more difficult. So before liberal public policy enthusiasts launch a fat tax crusade, they would do well to remember that the President has made “fairness” a centerpiece of his reelection bid. And with discontented leftists occupying (a small park near) Wall Street in protest over perceived inequality, this is not exactly the best political climate in which to introduce a tax on the poor.

Questions of political philosophy aside, for a moment, there is also some doubt about the effectiveness of a proposed fat tax. Researchers from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School of Singapore recently conducted a study about the soda tax and found its efficacy severely lacking: “Because these taxes would simply cause many consumers to switch to other calorie-laden drinks, however, even a 40 percent tax would cut only 12.5 daily calories out of the average diet and result in 1.3 pound weight loss per person per year.”

Obesity is a complex problem with many contributing factors. Even if the cost increase of a fat tax does drive people away from certain items, it won’t stop them from finding solace in the arms of other fattening foods. Furthermore, unhealthy food is hardly the only factor: the sedentary nature of our work, long commutes in the car, the prevalence of electronic entertainment all play a part. To combat the obesity epidemic through taxation is to invite government control and regulation into almost every aspect of our daily lives. Let’s also not forget that while Danish nanny state might be concerned about its citizens’ health, it’s also one of the highest taxing nations in the world.

Even if a fat tax does help some people lose weight, it’s grossly unfair to those of us who already maintain a normal body weight. A healthy person should not be punished for the immoderate behavior of others. How’s that for fairness? This is America. An individual ought to be able to eat whatever he wants, without interference from Congress or some public health bureaucrat.

I’m as scared as anyone that WALL-E’s vision of the future will prove all too accurate, but increased dependence on government is not the answer. If anything, it will only contribute to the lack of personal responsibility that has already made obesity such a problem. I actually think Michelle Obama has the right idea on this one, by focusing her Let’s Move! campaign on education. The best we can do is empower people to make their own informed healthy choices, not punish them for the occasional indulgence.

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