Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Rant - The fat tax

Back in August, Alabama released their plan to impose a fat tax on state employees. Basically, each employee will get a medical screening, which includes a BMI test (and we know my feelings about that) and medication screenings. Those considered obese or who have high blood pressure, high glucose, or high cholesterol will have to pay an extra $25/month starting in 2011.

Now, Alabama is the second highest in obesity in the United States, so there's obviously something that needs to be done. And obesity does put a strain on our healthcare system, so it does seem logical that the people who are asking more of the system put more into it (just like I think that people who make a ton more money should pay a proportionally higher rate of taxes).
My problem with this is in determining the line. I mean, sure, there are plenty of people out there who are obese because they eat too much unhealthy food in too-large servings and who don't exercise enough. But there's more of a gray area.

What about the people who are obese because they eat fattening food because it's cheaper? They don't have a lot of money, so they buy what they can afford. The WHO proposed a fat tax on unhealthy foods a few years ago (foods like potato chips, butter, cheese, meat and whole milk). And while I would be a hypocrite in saying that this isn't a good idea (because I think higher taxes on cigarettes is a good idea), it also isn't going to solve the problem. Because the fatty food is going to get more expensive, but the healthy food isn't going to be less expensive, and it will end up leaving poor people with even less ability to buy any food.

Then there are the people who do legitimately have health issues which push them over the edge into obesity. I know this is often an overused excuse, but there are times when it is valid. And on top of whatever other medical issues they're having, they're going to be charged extra?

Now, you might be saying, $300/year really isn't that much money, especially if you're disproportionally impacting the health care system. But I think that, in Alabama especially, a good proportion of those who are obese have gotten that way because of the economic issues and the lack of nutrition education. So making them pay more is just going to make the problem worse (it's all fine and good to say that they'll be motivated to eat healthier so they don't have to pay that extra assessment every time, but honestly I think it'll just make them mad). And trying to get them to change their ways with a fee isn't going to help if they haven't been taught a more healthy way to eat. It's like turning someone out into a field, telling them to grow food, saying you'll charge them rent every month on the land, but not teaching them the process of farming. It's rather silly.

Sure, there are plenty of people who know they aren't eating healthy. It doesn't take a course in nutrition to know that hamburgers and fries aren't the best choice for your arteries. But learning how to cook tasty recipes that make you want to eat healthy (rather than plain grilled chicken or constant salads), that's another thing all together.


Leah J. Utas said...

I agree something needs to be done, but punishing the sufferers further does not seem right.
I'm all for higher taxes/costs on junk food, but I take great exception to whole milk, butter, cheese, and meat being lumped in with potato chips.
Meanwhile, up here in my local grocery stores a 2L bottle of Coke is about half the price of 2L of milk and about 1/3 the price of 1.89L of Tropicana orange juice.

JavaChick said...

And what about people who smoke? Do they have to pay more? Because it seems wrong to single out people with weight problems and ignore people who deliberately sabotage their health by smoking.

Also, you can be skinny and still have an unhealthy lifestyle.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Java, that's a good point, it does seem that smokers should have the pay the tax too, because they do have more of an impact on the health care system as well.

Leah, I took exception to the dairy and meat lumped with junk food as well, because you can eat those in small, healthy portions.

Charlotte said...

Great rant. I agree with you that the fat tax is a bad idea. Mostly because it is based on a faulty assumption: that BMI is a good indicator of overall health. Which it isn't.

It's such a complicated problem. And the crux of it for me is that you can make something illegal but you simply can't legislate choice.

Romny said...

Great topic!

What about the hormones, pesticides, and preservatives put into our food? I'm a firm believer that these play a big part in how America has become more and more obese. Our bodies are not made to withstand these foregin chemicals and not everyone is aware of organic foods and or unable to acces organic foods.

As a fluffy person who has a hell of a time losing weight, I object to a extra charge simply because I don't fit the "norm". Who sets these BMI standards anyways? I have been known to indulge in fast food eatery's but for the most part, I stay away. I try to eat healthy but still have a hell of a time shedding those extra pounds. So does that mean I should not go to the doctor because they will charge me extra to tell me what I already know? I think as long as you are aware that there is a potential health hazard and you have proven that efforts are being made to lose those extra pounds, you shouldn't be taxed.

I can see this easily turning into an arguement that someone may take to the extreme and develop an eating disorder in an effort to not have to pay extra. O.k. that's probably a little drastic, but I think you know what I mean.

I can only speak for myself and as a fluffy person I already feel like poo knowing that I need to lose weight. The last thing I need is someone punishing me by pilfering more money from my wallet. O.k. I'll get off my soapbox now.

GroundedFitness said...

this is a hard one. I think before we make people pay (well, alabama) perhaps we shuld try educating them first? you cant penalize someone that doesnt know any better.

Kelly Turner

Crabby McSlacker said...

I agree! Carrots work better than sticks, right?

Perhaps a tax on unhealthy food could be offset by a discount on healthy produce like carrots, so that the net effect is not punitive.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Crabby, I think that the only way for this to work would be to tax "bad" food and give a price break on "good" food. The problem would be to decide which is which. Because meat and dairy aren't bad for you, in moderation...I think they'd have to stick with typical junk food to have it be at all effective.

Kelly, I think that education really is the key...and beyond education there's no much we can do, because people are going to eat what they want to eat, but we have to start with some level of knowledge, at least.

Romny, I think that's exactly the kind of reaction that it's going to elicit...people are going to be angry that not only are they overweight, but now they have to pay more for their it's only going to work to make healthy food more inexpensive.

Charlotte, you're so right. You can make laws taxing the hell out of something (say, for instance, tea), but if people feel they're being unfairly singled out, then they're going to revolt.

Dr. J said...

I don't think the answer is a tax on junk food. I think the answer is getting rid of junk food! I don't care if it leads to a "mac house" instead of a crack house down the street, it still will be an improvement :-)

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Dr J, that's funny! I agree people should eat less junk food, but nonono there will be a massive revolt if it's done away with! I eat junk food and relish it, I just eat it in moderation.

How about everyone gets junk food stamps, and when you've used up your stamps, you can't buy any more junk food for the month? ;)