September 14, 2000
The Fat Tax: Public Policy Goes Belly Up
By Daniel B. Newby
As you stroll into the grocery store, in the back of your
mind you realize that you've been going a little heavy on rich
foods lately and should tone down your diet. Nonetheless, on
your way to the low-fat yogurt section of the store, your
uncooperative eye catches a glimpse of the snack isle and you
find yourself heading toward your favorite candy bar. Tasty
morsel in hand, you move toward the checkout stand. As you do,
a man blocks your way.
Before you can react, the stranger states:
"I don't think
you should be eating that candy bar. It contains high levels
of saturated fat and processed sugar and [pointing an
accusatory finger at your midsection] represents a tangible
hazard to your already suffering health."
Not wanting to cause a scene with this obviously deranged
person, you dart for the safety of the checker just as fast as
your legs will move. Behind you the stranger calls, "If you
insist on buying that harmful product, we will assess a fat
tax on you!"
Absurd scenario? The fat police maybe, but not the fat tax.
The Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI), a national
"public interest" group, has launched a media campaign urging
new taxes on soft drinks and other "junk foods." In a June 1,
2000 press release, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of
CSPI, decries our current fat-laden lifestyles:
"With obesity rates soaring and the costs of diet-related
diseases in the stratosphere, it is essential that government
fund major campaigns to promote healthful diets and physical
activity. One way to obtain funding is to apply small taxes to
foods that undermine health… Small taxes on soft drinks,
candy, gum, and snack foods are a sensible way to fund
health-promotion programs... Those programs could result in
better health and lower health-care costs."
Political pundits used to joke that eventually taxes would
be assessed on fatty foods, but today it seems that cynical
humor can hardly keep pace with social engineers. The history
of recent "consumer protection policies" demand that fatty
foods be slated for the taxing block. And why not?
Take tobacco, for instance. First Americans decided to tax
smokers, then regulate airlines and other private businesses
from allowing smokers to pursue their habit, then finally used
the courts to aggressively litigate against tobacco companies.
It didn't matter that warning labels had been mandated on
cigarettes since the 1960s.
As justification, we proclaim it inhumane to require
smokers to be personally responsible for the damage they
repeatedly inflict on their own bodies. Apparently, it is
humane for our society to allow manufacturers to produce
products with warning labels for several decades, and then
punish them retroactively whenever enough of us decide we
don't like them anymore.
This evolving precedent has been contagious. Rhode Island's
attorney general recently launched a lawsuit against lead
paint manufacturers (lead paint was banned in 1978). He
believes a case can be made against latex glove makers as
well. Government prosecutors have set their sights on gun
manufacturers and consumers, and even the long-forbidden realm
of thought crimes has been breached by so-called hate-crimes
Utah is not immune. Consider the state law, effective July
2000, requiring all passengers to buckle up if seat belts are
available. Children under four must be buckled in
government-approved safety seats, and police can stop a car
and issue citations if they believe a toddler is not properly
secured, or if anyone under 19 years of age does not appear to
be buckled in.
From mandatory immunizations to bicycle helmets, Americans
are proving that we no longer have faith in our own ability to
be free. As we embrace the idea that individuals should not be
responsible for their own actions, state and federal
governments increasingly abuse the powers of taxation,
regulation, and litigation. The goal is simple: to punish — and
profit from — companies and consumers who do not pursue the
strictest social and safety habits.
Chuckle if you wish, but fatty foods are simply the next
logical target of people who know what's best for you — in this
case your midsection. And a not-too-distant Department of
Fatty Food Reduction will not be the end of this bulging wave
of government intrusion. In fact, there is no end. Your best
joke today can, like the fat tax, be America's reality
America can either discard the idea that government is our
super-nanny, or we can follow it to its natural conclusion: we
have become too foolish and incapable to ever manage our own
lives and behavior. Research suggests that widespread obesity
is a symptom of indulgent lifestyles that disregard
consequences. Perhaps a nation so afflicted can never gain
control unless it first develops the intestinal muscle to put
its own bloated government on a leaner diet.
On the brighter side, if fat-taxers are successful, we may
finally have the incentive needed to keep from indulging in
our favorite candy delicacies. We'll just have to weight and