Tax sugar and fat to pay the costs of indulgence.

April 1, 2013 

  • At issue: March 17 Slate.com column, "Lifestyle diseases trickier to combat"

The column on diet and lifestyle diseases raises several cogent points related to the unfortunately ill-conceived New York City cap on sugar-containing beverages. But the writer overcomplicates and convolutes the issue.

Yes, our overindulgence has a complex chain of exacerbating social, psychological and cultural/lifestyle contributing components, and it is not a communicable disease with biological underpinnings — although some might rightfully argue there are genetic predispositions with both metabolic and psychological underpinnings to be considered.

But we can't and don't need to wait for the softer sciences to solve these seemingly intractable problems. One simple fact alone is driving this train off the tracks. Whenever people have unlimited choices, they will choose first that which most pleases them rather than that which is good for them. Count on it.

We can't understate the fact that businesses offering food products will spare no amount of sugar, salt, fat or advertising expense to tempt the palate. They will not shirk from teasing and tapping every taste bud with which nature has so richly endowed us — for the sole purpose of separating us from our money, not to mention our wellbeing.

I would have to agree that individual choice is important. However, sticking with the fundamental principle of allowing ourselves the unfettered freedom of choice to do ourselves in — all the while duly limiting the power of the government to interfere, and then expecting the government to bail us out — seems a bit too much to ask. That's about $99.2 billion too much in health costs, according to the National Institute on Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases.

Now to the "business" of government. First note that there is a very subtle difference between limiting government's power and tying government's hands. The government — rightly or wrongly — is now in the business of paying for health care.

That's because a very unwieldy number of people can't or won't take care of themselves; there are formidable accomplices such as business, mentioned above, health care is seen as a divine right and the individual and collective costs are unmanageable otherwise.

I would have to agree that this is not a public health problem; it's an economic problem: We're not paying for our indulgences. Or, perhaps, it should be said we're not paying for the privilege of our indulgences. While we own the right to pursue happiness, we are not entitled to pursue our own brand of happiness at others' expense.

The economic burden of the entire constellation of diet-induced illnesses is staggering for every U.S, taxpayer, not just for those directly affected.

Simplistically, one could say that the purveyors of sugar, salt and fat are making off with the easy money and sticking the government with the clean-up expense. That doesn't need to continue.

In the spirit of free enterprise, businesses should be welcome to get whatever they can get, and government should take its cut from the spoils in taxes. This is how we've handled tobacco and alcohol. Now it's time to add an appropriate surcharge tax to sugar and fat.

The only discussion point left to consider is how much.

Cigarette excise taxes range from 17 cents a pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, with a median tax rate of $1.34 a pack. A conservative one-drink-a-day beverage consumer, equivalent to a one-pack-a-day smoker, would be estimated to drink an average of 16 ounces of sweetened beverages a day, making an equivalent tax assessment about 8.4 cents an ounce.

If you make it 5 cents per ounce to start out, a three-drink-a-day consumer (48 ounces) would pay $2.40 a day, roughly the same as a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker.

Now we need to dismiss the argument of undue hardship on the poor. The poor can do what the health-conscious rich do and drink bottled water at a non-taxable rate of less than 2 cents an ounce, or a total of $1.28 a day for 64 ounces. Using filtered water from home, the cost can be dropped almost another order of magnitude.

As a free and open society, we can no longer afford the free and open consequences of our current level of free and open indulgence.

The problems associated with obesity are self-inflicted, have broad societal impact and are, in largest part, foisted upon the government. Until we are not individually able to afford the indulgences, the societal consequences and our collective indebtedness will continue to rise beyond the untenable levels they already represent.


At issue: March 17 Slate.com column, "Lifestyle diseases trickier to combat"

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