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Front Page » February 18, 2003 » Opinion » A Fat Tax? Public Policy Goes Belly Up
Published 4,230 days ago

A Fat Tax? Public Policy Goes Belly Up


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By DANIEL B. NEWBY
Sutherland Institute

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 legislation.

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 tomorrow.

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 see.


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February 18, 2003
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