Friday, July 31, 2009


As I contemplate my trip to the upper Midwest tomorrow, my mind wanders to all my past experiences of that region. Compared to the east coast, at least, the people seem nicer, more down to earth, less pretentious, and less guileful. But the cultural attractions are much more sparse. And the food? Oi, the food.

You all hopefully remember the old Borscht Circuit joke that Woody Allen tells at the beginning of Annie Hall. “The food here is terrible. And such small portions!” From what I remember about my dozens of trips to the upper Midwest, the food there is certainly terrible. But the portions? Anything but small. And anything but nutritious.

You can hardly blame me for thinking about mid-America’s infatuation with fatty foods at a time like this. Our nation may be extraordinarily affluent, with more than 370 billionaires, and yet here we are, once again, on the verge of rejecting universal healthcare. Obviously, this has a lot to do with Americans’ dislike of paying taxes and distrust of Government as an economic provider. But it also has to do with the enormous inherent costs involved in treating the health needs of the American public. And those costs are, in no small part, a result of our obesity epidemic, an epidemic fueled by a ubiquitous addiction to fatty and sugary foods.

According to an article published this past Monday in the “Health Affairs” journal, American medical costs attributed to obesity increased from $79 billion in ’98 to $147 billion in ’08. The article went on to say that obese people incur medical costs that exceed those of normal weight individuals by 42% -- or $1,400 more per person per year. When you add to this the fact that people who aren’t obese but are overweight surely incur higher medical costs than those who are fit, the enormous cost of the American diet becomes crystal clear. The question is, what are we to do about it?

Recently, the idea of taxing the so-called “fatty foods” has gained some momentum. Under this plan, Americans who enjoy going out and ordering a Double Whopper with cheese, French fries, and a Coke can go right on pigging out – but they’d have to pay a tax for their choice.

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine all the opposition such a proposal would face if it were seriously considered. To be sure, we already place taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, so it might be argued that America is ready for a tax on fatty foods. But the currently taxable consumables are known in many circles as “sinful.” By contrast, who in their right mind would view it as “sinful” to order fries and chase that down with a Coke? Surely, that attitude would be Puritanism on steroids.

Another argument against the so-called “fat tax” is that it discriminates against poor people. Sales taxes are generally viewed as regressive, and it would appear that this tax is particularly so. After all, who do you think frequents places like McDonalds, Popeye’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken? The yacht club crowd? I doubt it.

For many people, the whole idea of a fat tax smacks of paternalism at its absolute ugliest. A vision emerges of some sort of know-it-all bureaucratic nanny working out of a soulless building in Southwest D.C. and deciding which foods “make the grade” and which ones cross the line into fat-tax territory. That nanny might get off on assigning arbitrary values to each culprit – “Let’s do $1 for a Big Mac … and how about 80 cents for a Whopper. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

For all these reasons, anyone who proposes a fat tax had better get used to some ridicule. To many, taxing these foods will seem as insane as taxing the family dog, and equally un-American.

All that said, I still support the idea. Yeah, I know – maybe I’ve eaten one tofu sandwich too many, but I’m looking at this as a matter of economics. Here in America we are trillions of dollars in debt. We realize that our health care system needs help, but we can’t seem to pay for reform because that costs money, and we don’t have the money to spend (or at least we tell ourselves that). So, shouldn’t we look for that money in different places? And aren’t the products that contribute most to our diseases the obvious places to look?

We’re already taxing cigarettes. And we’re taxing alcohol. So why not tax bacon? Or cheeseburgers? Or those delicious Bob Evans Stacked & Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes? Hmmm. I feel like getting out my Johns Hopkins Family Health Book just thinking about them.

To me, this isn’t an issue of morality. But it is a matter of efficiency. Like it or not, if we tax those foods, people would eat less of them, they’d get healthier, and our health care burden would be markedly reduced. The tax is simply a way to ensure that our society is charging a fair price for these products. After all, not only does it cost McDs and Burger King money to procure their ingredients and cook their fatty foods, but it costs the rest of us even more to pay for the health care needs of the bacon- or cheeseburger-eating public.

To me, the foods at issue should be analyzed much like the way we analyze air pollutants. It might be a good deal for a plant that pollutes the air to continue to do so, and a good deal for the consumers of the plant’s products to continue to buy those products at a cheap price. But can the rest of us afford to let the polluter keep it up, tax free? Not if we value our health. And right now, our failure to tax fatty and sugary foods is one of the reasons why many Americans can obtain health insurance.

As for the issue of regressive taxation, I agree that American society has an absurdly high level of economic inequality, but we also have numerous arrows in our quiver if we want to address that problem. We don’t need to panic whenever a proposal is made that could exacerbate that inequality. And we can’t afford to shy away from every sales tax that disproportionately hurts the working class and the poor. To do so would make no more sense than abolishing the cigarette tax, and thereby encouraging the poor to smoke more. Is that really in their interests? Is that really in ours?

Just think about it, folks. I know this idea is still a few years away from taking hold, but with your support, it’s time might come soon enough.

By the way, the Bob Evans Stacked & Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes are only 1,543 calories and deliver three days worth of trans fat. They’re also probably not more than a few dollars. Tax-free, those hotcakes are quite the bargain!

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