The other day, Levitt and I participated in a brainstorming session on how to fight childhood obesity, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (FWIW, we recorded the event and will try to turn it into a podcast.)
One topic that got a lot of traction was a targeted tax on sugary drinks and fatty foods. (This is often called a “fat tax” but should not be confused with a tax on overweight people.) Many people in the session were in favor of the idea but a few were skeptical, primarily because such a tax will be tricky to implement well. One objection that I was surprised no one raised: the simple fact that taxpayers might hate the tax and rebel against it to the point where it becomes politically and economically impossible.
In support of the idea, one person reminded us that Denmark recently instituted a “fat tax” on foods containing more than 2.3 percent of saturated fat.
Talk about bad timing! Writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Clemens Bomsdorf informs us that:
Danish lawmakers have killed a controversial “fat tax” one year after its implementation, after finding its negative effect on the economy and the strain it has put on small businesses far outweigh the health benefits. …
Products such as butter, oil, sausage, cheese and cream were subject to increases of as much as 9% immediately after the new tax was enacted.
“What made consumers upset was probably that an extra tax was put on a natural ingredient,” said Sinne Smed, a professor at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics.
The fat tax comes to an end after netting an estimated €170 million ($216 million) in 2012 in new revenue. Danish lawmakers will slightly raise income taxes and reduce personal tax deductions to offset the lost revenue. The lawmakers also decided on Saturday to reverse an earlier decision to create a sugar tax.
Does this mean the idea of a fat tax isn’t viable here? Hardly. But, regardless of your view of the issue itself, this is yet another example of how long-term policy can be affected by the short-term state of the economy. New taxes are rarely popular but that is especially true when many of the world’s economies are still trying to climb out of a deep trough.
Fans of the idea should console themselves: in the years it will take to refine, experiment with, and wrestle over a U.S. fat tax policy, our economy will probably be booming again!