Germany is considering taking so-called “fat taxes” to a whole new level, and it might not be long before activists here push for us to do the same. While taxes on soda, candy, and other products are gaining momentum with revenue-hungry lawmakers here in the states, a lawmaker in Germany wants to go one step farther and directly tax obesity.
It is interesting that vocal food-tax supporters in the United States, including Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, actually oppose taxing the real problem, obesity itself. In an AOL News article, Willett called the idea of a direct fat tax “not humane,” saying it’s “not fair to tax someone for being obese.” Yet he thinks it’s fair to tax a perfectly healthy person for drinking a soda or eating an occasional Snickers bar.
Willett and other food-tax proponents acknowledge that food choices are not the only factor in obesity, as genetics, physical activity, and other factors play crucial roles. Yet their case against a direct obesity tax applies even more strongly to taxes on targeted foods and beverages.
Slapping taxes on selected foods and drinks punishes low-income people and those who enjoy an occasional tasty treat and does little to lower obesity rates. Even advocates of these taxes readily admit the rates would have to be extremely high to have any significant health effects. In addition, the alternative products people switch to typically have similar calorie counts or other deleterious effects—raising the call for those items to be saddled with abusive taxes as well.
Taxes aren’t the only government policies so-called public health advocacy groups have been clamoring for lately. Calls for bans on salt in restaurants and toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals also have made headlines—further evidence that there is no end to the products special-interest groups will try to demagogue as being harmful to people, bad for the environment, or unhealthy, as a means to more government control and tax revenues.
The real reason these taxes are being pushed is the steep budgetary pressures facing so many state legislatures and local governments. Advocacy groups are acting as cat’s-paws for irresponsible, overspending legislatures that have grossly mishandled their budgets and are desperate for new sources of revenue.
Such taxes tend not to bring in the expected revenue anyway, because people switch to other products—the alleged intent of the taxes, after all—and engage in cross-border shopping, buying from smugglers, and other such tactics, thus turning law-abiding people into criminals.
Taxing products deemed less healthy might seem like good politics, but it is poor health policy and even worse tax policy. “Sin” taxes are often steeply regressive and distort a market already filled with healthy as well as less-healthy choices. These taxes will do nothing to slim down Americans, and everything to further fatten our state and local governments.