You may have noticed a flurry of news items based on a study by the Urban Institute, “Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies from the Tobacco Wars.”
In it, the costs of obesity on the nation’s medical system are given (a cost of $147 billion cited by the CDC), or about 9% of the total health expenditure. The study cites with alarm the growth of obesity in the general American population, climbing to 40% by 2015. The solution proposed is massive federal intervention regarding our diets and portion sizes. Key among the interventions is a tobacco-sized tax on fattening foods. “Sinful-food” taxes to change the way people eat. Doing so with a broad-based tax, they surmise, will reduce and reverse obesity because, “with a more narrowly targeted tax, consumers could simply substitute one fattening food or beverage for another.” Do unto food as was done unto tobacco.
The “tobacco wars” were an attack on an entire industry as well as a slam on smoking. Taking a hint, we can assume this would be a new assault on everything displeasing to the vegetarian crowd. Man the castle, Burger King.
This would call for the United States to adopt extensive menu and food labeling changes. The report says this would not be a problem as a number of European countries have led the way. State laws on the books would be overridden by new federal laws. The new buzzword “disincentivize” has entered our language; it means to discourage us from eating and drinking what they don’t want us to have and make us consume what we would rather not.
The payoff if a 10% tax were levied on foods deemed “less healthy” might be as much as $522 billion over ten years. One can’t imagine the tax would stop at 10%, as one remembers the child-friendly SCHIP jacked up taxes on tobacco products 2,000%. At the same time, the government would commit to tax subsidies to stimulate consumption of fruits and vegetables. A curious notion since the price of veggies has never placed them out of reach.
This all sounds so nice and innocent. So many “facts” will be marshaled on demand to support the conclusion.
Using the tobacco taxes as a model, we don’t have to smoke. We do have to eat and drink. Food is more than fuel and the aggregate of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It is a cultural statement. It’s part of enjoying life. It’s an expression of taste.
Yes, a lot of choices are less healthy than others. Why do we have our choices? Because of the free market and response to the demand of consumers.
Why do we have an explosion of obesity? There have always been fatty foods, even more in the past than the present. We used to cook with lard. Not long ago, there was no such thing as “sugar-free.” Obesity has grown, in part, because our culture has created so many more reasons to sit down and stay down. Computer-based recreation. Employment that must be driven to instead of walked to. Decline in manual labor. Our normal activities used to burn the calories and bust the fat. Such is less the case now.
Of course, no one is talking about these real causes, primarily our grand transition from an agrarian nation to the urban and suburban. They are essentially irreversible on a societal level. We’re not doing a Pol Pot ban on computers. We’re not parking our cars to saddle the horse. We’re not going back to the life of 1900 when being fat was a sign of wealth and luxury. This script seems to long for the days of Farmer John pushing the plow. But John traded his plow for the tractor. The genie has long since left the bottle.
We all know about the decline in physical activities in the schools, not only due to more time squeezed for test-related instruction, but increasingly for budget reasons. Money aside, some of the cheapest sports have been dropped because of political correctness — dodgeball, tag, jungle gyms, and merry-go-rounds, among others. Kids play less and weigh more. How surprising. Amazing how they think adding a few carrots in the cafeteria will turn things around.
Where did this concept of a fat-food tax come from? It took root because of the work of Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. In the 1980s and 1990s, Brownell pushed for junk-food taxes that would be used to subsidize more healthful food and food nutrition campaigns. Brownell would be named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.
It’s not surprising Time would heap such praise. A pro-tax, pro-massive government, pro-nanny state, ivory tower egghead is just the kind of researcher the media elites love to foist upon us. Nonetheless, clearly his ideas gained enough traction to produce subsequent studies such as the one by the Urban Institute, bringing us where we are today.
Using “save the children” as a shield, citing medical costs as a cause and disease prevention as the justification, there are forces at work to get us to surrender freedom of choice in one of the most basic areas of life: what we eat and drink. The goal is not our better health. It’s control and political power sought by academic and nutritional elites longing to be the parent of us all.
We each have a brain and we can use it to cut our portions, visit fewer fast food places, and kick the kids out to play outdoors instead of online. Our pocketbook moves the marketplace. We can also pay the price for our unwise choices, but that’s part of freedom too.
We will be told it is in our best interest to sacrifice freedom for health. Then we will have a different level of choices to make. What will we do? If we don’t roll over and do as we’re told by the food police, these cops in smocks, this question might become the new civil rights fight of our time.