Musings: Fat Tax?

This is a supplementary page, for replies to the post Fat tax? (September 9, 2009).

The issue, briefly, is whether taxing "junk food" would be a good way to combat the epidemic of obesity. Here are replies. More welcomed; I'll post things there anonymously. Facts, opinions, whatever.

Reply 1: Fat tax? Follow-up (September 11, 2009)
Reply 2: Fat tax? Follow-up #2 (September 22, 2009)

Reply 1 (September 11, 2009)

Obesity is certainly an issue to be taken seriously in this country but I think ideas on how to effectively curb it are limited. A "sin-tax" is meant to work in two ways: First, we try to create an incentive to reduce the "sin" by increasing its cost to the average consumer. For things like cigarettes and a "fat-tax", the idea is also that we are in some sense passing on the societal costs of the health impacts of your "bad habits."

For some, I think you can also look at it more cynically: we're trying to control you because we think your choices are bad, and the best way to impose that belief is to make it too costly for you to continue those habits. This can also be seen as biased toward low-income individuals because now only the rich can afford to be sinful. For food, we also see that the most affordable food is often the worst for you. Maybe a tax on junk food would help make the household choices between healthy and junk food easier but overall it is more costly.

The second reason "sin-taxes" are so popular is because we are taxing things that we are addicted to, and therefore it is a guaranteed increase in revenues for your state. We tax gas, cigarettes, alcohol, etc, because frankly, there is little chance you'll cut back your use of those goods in the short run (these goods are strongly inelastic in the short run - for those into economics terms). The fine line is how high can we raise that tax before you start making alternative choices (i.e before we start losing revenues because you no longer use that good)?

There is an inherent difficulty in picking a side because there is a fine balance of issues to consider: morals, health, revenues, consumer freedom. It all weighs into the decision to impose these taxes.

Is it "right" to try to control the use of certain goods? I guess your opinion is based on your experience with that good. For example: I'm a non-smoker and I lost a grandfather to lung cancer. In my mind, go ahead and tax-away for cigarettes. If they are $50 a pack, all the better because maybe the rest of the smokers in my family would finally quit. But my opinion is driven by my "moral" and emotional view of the product. What about the smokers out there who just 'like' it?

And cigarettes are different from food. It's a lot harder to point a finger at "bad" food versus "good" food, and what we should tax.

Then there is the question of what is ultimately better for society. If people lived more healthfully, if we exercised more, smoked less, drank less, then our health costs should theoretically decline. Now, suddenly, this question rolls into the whole health care problem and debate...

Reply 2 (September 22, 2009)

We have so much technology and knowledge, we physically do things less. Instead of walking a mile to school, it's just working your feet on the pedal and moving the steering wheel in circles.

When it comes to eating, I think its natural for some people to like to eat more than others. Traditionally, this would be of no problem because those who eat the most tend to do the most work.

Now, less physical work is needed. Maybe more hours, but per unit of effort, it's less. An example would be using a truck to carry or dump sand and gravel for landscaping rather than shoveling little-by-little by hand.

Efficiency, "Time is money", etc. is a different topic.

I'm guessing those who tend to eat a lot keep eating a lot, but in the 20th century, things have changed in the last 200 odd years. I think the first social evolution was caused by the light bulbs. I would never have thought about doing work after sunset... Oh wait, this is 2009...

Comment. The analogy with light bulbs is intriguing. Organisms, including humans, have a natural response to the light-dark cycle of the day. The availability of practical lighting allowed us to change our habits -- but not our underlying biology. In fact, there are real concerns about health problems due to people working nights. Of course, people vary in their response. Thus, lighting is an example of how a technology change affected our behavior, with possible adverse health effects. Now, what change resulted in the current obesity epidemic?

Return to main pages:
- Fat tax? (September 9, 2009)
- Fat tax? Follow-up (September 11, 2009)
- Fat tax? Follow-up #2 (September 22, 2009).

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