Taxation will not lessen incidence of obesity

by Keith Nunes
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In early February First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the Let’s Move campaign, a program designed to address in a single generation the problems of childhood obesity. While the effort’s goal may be exceedingly ambitious, it is a common sense, multi-faceted approach to addressing the issue of childhood obesity. As such, it stands in stark contrast with less progressive efforts to address the issue, such as the taxation of some food and beverage products — most notably sugar-sweetened beverages.

The Let’s Move campaign has many different programs under its umbrella, including efforts to get parents more involved in their child’s nutrition and exercise, improving the quality of food in schools and making healthy foods more affordable and accessible. In addition to supporting the Let’s Move campaign, food and beverage makers have introduced several initiatives meant to complement Let’s Move.

The American Beverage Association, for example, said its members will start putting calorie information on the front of all packaging and vending machines. The effort will begin this year with a goal of being completed by 2012.

The less progressive steps meant to address the incidence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States that have emerged in the past few years are characterized by proposing to levy a tax on products that are deemed contributors to obesity. Soda tax proposals have been introduced in at least three states, including California, Mississippi and New York. The recently proposed California soda tax (see Page 39) would levy 1c for every teaspoon of added sugar in commercial beverages. The revenue generated by the tax would be used to fund efforts to curtail childhood obesity within the state. Initial projections estimate the tax would raise $1.5 billion per year.

In New York State, officials are trying to pass a similar soda tax for the second time. In December 2008, Governor David Paterson included an 18% sales tax on non-diet soft drinks in the state’s budget. The tax also would have been levied against sugar drinks containing less than 70% real fruit juice. That effort was defeated. Governor Paterson has revived the tax plan in issuing the state’s 2010-11 budget and it has earned the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The new effort would charge 1c per ounce on beverages containing sugar.

“Today, more than half the residents of New York City, and nearly 40% of our public school students, are overweight, many of them seriously so,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “That puts them dangerously on track to contracting diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, depression, and other serious health problems later in their lives. It’s in the interest of us all to prevent that from happening now — and the surest pathway to changing behavior is through the wallet.”

Obesity is a complex issue and it is both naïve and simplistic to believe the taxation of certain products will reduce its incidence. Ms. Obama’s effort is laudable because while her goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation is aggressive, the programs she advocates stand a much better chance of success.

Reducing the percentage of Americans, both young and old, who are obese will require education. It is doubtful a majority of people in this country have the knowledge to correctly identify how many calories they should consume in a day. It is equally predictable most parents do not know how many calories per day their children do or should consume.

Correcting this problem will require patience and education. Taxation will not speed the process. It will simply reignite the debate over what constitutes a “good” food and what is a “bad” food and further confuse a consumer base that is in need of solutions that will help solve the problem rather than just pay for it.

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