Who's Ready for a Fat Tax?

From a Wall Street Journal article by Betsy McKay come these tantalizing facts (emphasis added):

The medical costs of treating obesity-related diseases may have soared as high as $147 billion in 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday, as its new director set a fresh tone in favor of more aggressively attacking obesity.

The cost of treating obesity doubled over a decade, signaling the rising prevalence of excess weight and the toll it is taking on the health-care system. The medical costs of obesity were estimated to be $74 billion in 1998, according to a study by federal government researchers and RTI International, a nonprofit research institute in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The findings were released at a conference on obesity held by the CDC in Washington, D.C. The prevalence of obesity rose 37 percent between 1998 and 2006, and medical costs climbed to about 9.1 percent of all U.S. medical costs, the researchers said.

Obese people spent 42 percent more than people of normal weight on medical costs in 2006, a difference of $1,429, the study found. Prescription drugs accounted for much of the increase.

We’ve blogged here variously in the past about the many possible contributing factors that have made it so much easier to get obese these days. That said, it is a self-inflicted condition any way you look at it.

When you read that 9.1 percent of all health-care costs are the result of eating and drinking too much, doesn’t it make you wonder if we should be more seriously talking about a fat tax rather than simply a fat-cat tax? The first dollars in fact could come from the six senators who are trying to reform health care:

On the agenda is the revamping of the American health care system, possibly the most complex legislation in modern history. But on the table, in a conference room where the bill is being hashed out by six senators, the snacks are anything but healthy.

Last week, there were chippers — chocolate-covered potato chips — described on a sign as “North Dakota Diet Food.” More often, there are Doritos, pretzels, Oreo cookies, and beef jerky: fuel to get through hours of talks on topics like the actuarial values of private insurance plans or the cost-sharing provisions of Medicare.


Walk On

I am waiting for the taxes to be imposed on weight. I have been waiting since the beginning of the anti-smoker campaign, which blamed smokers for the high cost of healthcare. I have been waiting since the auto insurers managed to get every state in the nation to require insurance and the government started spending money to track and be certain that everyone had insurance. (Auto insurance is a tax on owning a vehicle that is above the taxes normally imposed on the ownership of a vehicle, and is paid to a private company. It is a tax, because without it, any auto owner faces fines and/or jail time.)
The next reasonable course for these taxes is to start charging tax on people who are "overweight." The sad reality is, there are many people in this world for whom the government standards for weight cannot apply. There are people who are not healthy at the "right" weight, but rather at 30 lbs over that weight. There are people with thyroid disorders who are not capable of managing their weight to the "standard" for their height. There are body builders and athletes who prove that muscle weighs more by having perfect measurements and perfect health, but weighing in at 50 or more lbs over the acceptable weight range for their height.
If anyone didn't see the tax on being overweight coming, they were blind. Another one that will be coming is a tax on cholesterol levels, as we know that heart disease is still a leading cause of death in the US, the treatment of which is terribly expensive.

We have, dear Americans, fallen prey to insurance companies. Sadly, we did so willingly, and then when the insurers told us to turn against our fellows, we failed to recognize the undertones and have given rise to a new form of Nazi leadership. How long before it's illegal to not report a neighbor for failing to maintain insurance on one thing or another?

Welcome to the United Socialist Regime of America.

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Mark S.

If those same North Dakota Senators and all other politicians who vote on Agriculture bills would agree to drop all farm support, we would have much more expensive food and much healthier food, too. The healthier fruits and veggies growing in CA, FL etc receive relatively less farm support than the row crops (corn & soybeans) growing in the Midwest. The row crops are processed into fattening food ingredients such as corn syrup and vegetable oils. Taxing foods on the back end when the production is subsidized on the front end would be schizophrenic but sadly par for the course with regard to our tax system here in the US.

Joshua

Or maybe there should be a fat subsidy so that people will die sooner and stop using precious medical resources? Or, here's a crazy thought, we could let adults make, live with, and pay for their own lifestyle choices.

Chad Bergeron

Unfortunately, with no standard for what defines obesity, I suspect some of the increase may be from a cultural shift that is more apt to define people as obese, and to include that as a factor in various diagnoses.

PsiCop

Curiously, the tobacco settlement, arrived at in the 90s and still being paid by the tobacco companies, was supposed to compensate the states for expenditures on smokers and for smoking-reduction programs.

But for the most part, the money is not being used for that.

As I said ... curious.

I suspect that any "fat tax" will meet the same fate ... it'll just be thrown into the general funds of all the states and will not be spent on healthcare.

I'd support this, if I had proof the "fat tax" would be used only for its intended purpose and for nothing else. But given how government operates, that proof is impossible to provide.

So count me among those who are not going to be swindled by this.

Rick

Joshua, doing that has cost other Americans dearly in rising Health Insurance costs....well that and greed.

Bram Fokke

@1. There is a difference between a tax on fat food and a tax on obesity. Obesity is a serious health problem and using a fat tax to cross-subsidize healthy food might be an excellent way to try and solve that problem. Comparing it to socialism and/or Nazi leadership is ridiculous.

Richard B.

Who needs a tax? We should stop the subsidies we are already paying that lead to carb-laden, fatty, sweetened foods through the farm bill.

Kevin C

Walk-on,
I'm guessing you didn't read the linked to article about fat-tax. It does not suggest taxing people for being fat, it suggests taxing unhealthy, fattening foods.

Nick

7 is right. Subsidizing healthy food would be imperative as most unhealthy food is extremely cheap (because of corn subsidies) which makes it the only option for poor people. This is a large reason why obesity disproportionately affects people of lower socioeconomic status.

Meno White

How many health-clubs get built in poor neighborhoods? We're not talking anymore about preaching diet and exercise, disclosing calorie counts, or restricting sodas in schools. We're talking about treating French fries like cigarettes or liquor.

FACT: Health food is more expensive than the crap.

Low income people suffer more from unhealthy diets. If you're on a limited income trying to feed a family, in a distorted sense you're behaving rationally by choosing heavily sweetened and fat-laden foods. Access to healthy food is one of those issues that anyone - no matter their racial, ethnic, geographic or political stripes - can agree upon. A recent USDA report also says that while "supermarkets and large grocery stores have lower prices than smaller stores," "easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity. In short, the problem isn't the good food you can't get, but really the bad food you can. This trend has hit low-income groups particularly hard. The obesity rates for "poor" and "near-poor" people stand at 36 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively, against an overall average of 29.2 percent for "non-poor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The price gap between the two food categories is growing.The overall cost of food consumed at home, when adjusted for inflation, has been essentially unchanged since 1980. But over the same time, the price of soft drinks plunged 30 percent, and the price of candy and other sweets fell 20 percent. Meanwhile, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 50 percent.

FACT: Our food system is shot through with corn.

Corn feeds the animals that feed us: more than 50 percent of the harvest goes into domestic animal operations. About 5 percent flows into high-fructose corn syrup, adding a sweet jolt to soft drinks, confections, and breakfast cereal. All told, it's a cheap source of calories and taste. Yet all this convenience comes with a price -- and not just an environmental one. The first step to truly ending obesity (and hunger) is to define what causes and perpetuates poverty and address that.

http://www.thegrio.com/2009/06/access-to-healthy-food-is.php

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Tris

re comment #1: When you mention bodybuilders, those with thyroid disorders, etc, you are talking about maybe 0.5% of the population.

It is not difficult at all to determine who is obese and who is not. Americans are eating themselves to death and the only way to stem the tide is to hit them in the wallet. Money is (unfortunately) the only thing that really speaks to people.

People on welfare that are issued food stamps should be limited to purchasing staple food supplies such as milk, various meats, fruits, vegetables, etc. Snack foods like cookies, chips, twinkies, soda (et al) should be off the list of gov subsidized foods.

Face it: Americans are not just fat, they are morbidly obese. Something must be done, and fast.

Jughead

Why not create a formula for fat/unhealthy content in food and create a tax accordingly.

$X dollars per gram of transfat over a certain threshold. In other words, tax consumption (eating the food) vs. income (getting fat from the food).

Travis

While this would be seen as a "regressive" tax unfairly affecting the poor, I think it should be noted that the notion that "healthy foods" are more expensive than "crap foods" is only true when you're at the grocery store looking for 3 dollar pizzas.

It doesn't extend to fast food.

As an example, there was a "homeless" man panhandling on the bus for $6.50 to buy a burrito and a soda. I felt that if this person can not figure out a better way to spend 6.50 than on a burrito and a soda, he deserves to go hungry.

Likewise, if the poor are being encouraged to eat fast food because of it's price, that should be fixed.

French fries SHOULD be treated like cigarettes and alcohol, because like cigarettes and alcohol, they contribute to a significant negative externality. A pigovian tax would be the ideal solution in this case.

P.S. the new show "more to love" is not only a startling smack in the face to what typical America is their commercials provide an interesting statistic. The average woman is a size 13-14? wow.

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Shay Guy

The Nazis hated socialism.

David

A few points:
#1 food stamps may only go toward staples and can not buy junk food. I have seen clerks tell this to people and force them to put items back when they try and use food stamps for them.

#2: Why not tax high fat/Junk food the way tobacco products are taxed. Seems to make sense. How we determine what is healthy and what is not is another story. Whole milk and cheese might be determined to be unhealthy based on the %of fat in them.

#3: Let's pay people who are at a healthy weight and live a healthy life style by giving them discounts on things like health insurance.

#4: It is time we realize that portion size in the US is out of control. SUPERSIZE is everywhere. I went out to eat at a local Italian joint and 3 out of 4 diners took food home with them because a plate of pasta was enough for three meals not one.

rob

9.1%? thats a joke. my girlfriend, a case manager with a large Seattle hospital, puts the figure at closer to 50%. she says almost everyone she see's is suffering from some form of weight related issues. diabetes., coronary disease, blood pressure, joints problems, liver problems, dialysis, sleep disorders. the rooms filled with fat people.the other 50% of health care costs goes up in smoke treating elderly patients with traumatising operations and expensive life prolonging treatments.

Warren C

Agree with Mark S....Taxing on the back end of a heavily subsidized corn industry ($56.2 billion from 1995-2006, http://farm.ewg.org/farm/progdetail.php?fips=00000&progcode=corn) makes no sense.

US subsidize corn -> cheap, readily available corn syrup -> Big Gulps become the norm -> obesity epidemic

Unamerican

@Walk On 10:48 am

(1) Driving is a privilege not a right. If you have certain medical condtions or don't have the vision you can't be denied a license, or at least have a doctor certify that its safe for you be to the road. For example, I've known at least one person with a seizure disorder that despite their best efforts they weren't able to completely control thus weren't able to drive.

You can't honestly complain about driving here. Most people can drive yes, but not all.

(2) Nobody makes you smoke here, but the related health implications often force more than just the smoker to pick up the tab.

(3) The rate of obesity has increased far too quickly to be explained by genetics. If it was genetic we would expect the rate of obesity to remain largely the same, or increase gradually. Instead, the the rate of obesity, which has skyrocked since 1980's, seems a bit to quick to be explained by genetics.

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Edward Hake

The taxes on tobacco are an example of the hypocrisy of governments. Smoking is bad for ones health, their is no doubt about it. It should be either banned or people should be educated to its harmful effects. They should make up their own minds about the life they want to lead.
If they like fat food and over eat , they will get obese.
There are many reasons people overeat and they can reach obesity from eating even fat free foods.
They should be responsible for their health, it should not be up to the government to tax the responsible people to take care of those who life styles result in poor health. There is no end to the taxes and restrictions that an elitist few can place on the general public. It would be far better if we re to find out that we must learn to take our own steps to good health, each private decision to lead a irresponsible life should not be a public expense.