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Would a fat tax save lives?


To Fat Tax or Not to Fat Tax
Photographer: Jemini Joseph

The Oxford researchers outlined some of the criticisms of the fat tax in their study, but perhaps no one sums up the feelings of the anti-fat-tax gang better than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who in 2004 called a proposed fat tax a sign of a "nanny state" [Source: Reuters]. Critics say that people should be allowed to make their own decisions about what they eat and whether to eat healthy foods. The institution of a tax would limit personal choice and allow the government to dictate, or at the very least influence, what people eat. Some also question whether taxing the obese creates a stigma when more positive efforts could be undertaken.

Another concern centers around what is taxed and who makes that decision. A "food czar" or fat-tax committee could wield tremendous power and effect broad changes in the lives of consumers, farmers and food distributors. Some healthy foods could be mislabeled as unhealthy and fall subject to the tax. An official from Britain's Food and Drink Federation cited cheese as one example. Although it can be high in fat, moderate quantities of cheese are considered quite healthy and nutritious. And sodas or chocolate chip cookies, both supposedly unhealthy foods, aren't harmful if consumed in small quantities. Those who enjoy these foods only occasionally would be unfairly penalized.

Then there's the money issue. Few people like paying taxes, and the possibility of another one may be unpalatable to many people, especially when paying for food staples. The tax would impact the poor most, as they spend much of their income on food and many fattening foods also happen to be cheap.

Proponents of the tax, like Dr. Brownell, suggest using the fat tax to boost government nutrition and education programs. Dedicating the fat tax to a stated use rather than simply letting the money flow into the government's coffers would make the tax's value more apparent and trackable [Source: Forbes]

There are some good reasons for the tax. About 25 percent of British adults are obese [Source: Guardian Unlimited]. At least a third of American adults are as well [Source: CDC]. Poor diet accounts for an estimated 30 percent of deaths from heart disease [Source: BBC News]. Obesity contributes to a myriad of health problems, like cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep apnea. It also drives up health care costs and keeps people out of work. The overall financial costs of obesity are greater than those for smoking or alcoholism [Source: Health Affairs].

The presence or even the threat of a fat tax could pressure food producers to cut down on saturated fats, calories, and unhealthy ingredients. If that doesn't work, experts say that the government could provide incentives for food manufacturers to use healthier ingredients. For example, some communities, in addition to dabbling in fat taxes, have banned or campaigned against the use of trans fats.

Food and health organizations appear divided on the issue. Restaurant industry groups and consumer-rights organizations fear higher prices, diminished sales and a lack of personal choice. Even the British Heart Foundation said that the present research doesn't provide enough information about the tax's possible effects. Britain's National Obesity Forum supports a fat tax, and the World Health Organization called for one in 2003. While no consensus exists, the fat tax -- in addition to questions about the safety of food imports -- is likely to be a popular field of study for years to come.

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