Monday, January 25, 2010

Junk food tax is junk policy

Junk food tax, fast-food tax, fat tax, soda tax, candy tax-by any name, the only thing these taxes succeed in making slimmer is your pocketbook. That's something Washingtonians may discover if the legislature succeeds in passing a new tax on "unhealthy" food.

A CBS poll published Jan. 8 showed that although most Americans want to be healthier and lose weight, 60 percent oppose taxing so-called junk foods. Unfortunately, the public's opposition has not stopped some policymakers and special interests from implementing taxes to discourage people from eating foods the "experts" deem unhealthy.

Starting in March, Romania will become the first country to place a nationwide tax on any food or beverage the government claims is unhealthy. In the United States, 33 states currently tax soft drinks, and 15 tax candy at a higher rate than other products. Cities are considering similar taxes.

One reason for the public opposition to these taxes is that the money is all too often diverted from its stated purposes to pay for unassociated increases in government spending. These taxes are nothing more than yet another attempt by government officials to grab more money from taxpayers, under the pretense of enhancing public health.

A study by the Mercatus Center explains, "Taxes on sugar-sweetened soft drinks do not necessarily advance the overall public interest, may be regressive in nature, and hardly ever work as intended."

Regardless of whether you believe government should force people to eat what contemporary experts say is healthiest, we can all agree that any government actions in this regard should actually work. If they don't, they shouldn't be implemented. Yet even health-oriented advocates of such taxes readily admit fat taxes will have few if any health benefits unless set extremely high, which creates a whole host of new problems. Although some people might quit drinking or eating these newly taxed products, they'll probably just begin consuming an alternative calorie-filled product that isn't taxed as highly.

Thus the 2007 study Cheap Donuts and Expensive Broccoli: The Effect of Relative Prices on Obesity found, "the sensitivity of individuals to relative food prices is too small for fat taxes to have much of an effect, at least in reasonable ranges of tax rates. For example, a 100 percent tax on unhealthful foods would reduce average BMI by less than 1 percent, according to our results."

Singling out certain products as sinful and placing draconian taxes on them is an ineffective health policy and even worse tax policy. The definition of what is healthy tends to be arbitrary and creates absurd anomalies: Illinois taxes a Twix bar as food while taxing yogurt-covered fruit as candy. These taxes also unduly punish low- and moderate-income people, as they consume higher quantities of these products in relation to their overall income.

Local, state and federal officials should focus on trimming their own budgetary belts instead of taking more money from citizens who eat the occasional cheeseburger or drink an occasional soda.


Government lifestyle mandates are poisonous to liberty

THERE are increasing calls to regulate and tax many supposedly harmful lifestyle products, such as fatty foods, soft drinks and even video games, under the guise of public health imperatives. It is relevant to scrutinise the ethics of the principles used to justify what amount to public health-inspired government lifestyle mandates.

The first point to make is that previous public health campaigns for things such as clean air and water differ fundamentally from those currently being discussed. The key difference is that no one chose to drink water that contained faeces; on the other hand, alcohol, hamburgers and even cigarettes bring utility as well as harm. What value is an exciting night out with friends, or the experiences gained from episodes of heavy alcohol consumption, or simply the experience of feeling relaxed for an evening? It is illegitimate to present a one-sided equation of harm unbalanced by utility. What is a harmful outcome to some might be an optimal balance to others.

The next issue relates to who should make the decision about whether something represents an overall net positive or negative for the individual. A central committee? No; in order to balance the infinite considerations in making such harm-benefit calculations, our society is built on deferment to the fundamental ethical principle of autonomy.

In a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine, a group of academics attempted to justify a public health-inspired tax on soft drinks. Within medical academe the ideological pendulum seems to be returning towards that of paternalism (the informed doctor taking responsibility for the uninformed citizen). Thus the authors argued that people couldn't make a free choice to purchase a soft drink because most of the population doesn't have the capacity to understand what it is doing.

This necessitates the extraordinary premise that people have no realisation that consuming junk food in excess might be bad for their health. People know that too much junk food or booze or too much smoking is bad for them. Some people make irresponsible choices.

If just one side of the equation (all the harmful outcomes) indicates that people can't make sensible choices, then, by definition, we have branded large swaths of our community as lacking the capacity to make the basic autonomous lifestyle choices expected of adults. Is an average person able to consent to open-heart surgery but not to purchase a soft drink?

Admittedly it's hard to argue that preventing a drunken thug being violent or a morbidly obese person from having a heart attack isn't worth a few cents extra in taxation per drink or hamburger.

But it is a bedrock legal and societal principle that we consider differently those who cause harm to others and those who make choices that harm themselves. Crucially, there is a real possibility that taking action against harmful consumption under a public health imperative may end up causing more overall harm.

The public health view tends to promulgate a culture of abrogation of personal responsibility. "I drove when I was drunk because of my alcohol disease; society failed me." Thus, even if increased regulation does not cause a major impediment to people's freedom, failure to address the relevant complex societal, philosophical and ideological questions may prohibit a more effective resolution to the problem.

Admittedly, many lifestyle indulgences increase costs to the health system. But as every act or behaviour can ultimately be related to health, this argument can be used to regulate every decision we make. In a third-party payer system, there is an irreconcilable conflict between healthcare costs and liberty. More and more you are likely to see well-meaning ideological lobby groups (as well as mercenary rent-seekers) justify restrictions of free choice and association on the basis of "healthcare costs".

Forcing a citizen to undertake an action against their will for the "greater good" of healthcare-cost reduction is a wholly unethical position. No person can be ethically compelled to participate in a health program against their will. The lack of the ability to opt out of paying the alcopops tax reinforces the political nature of the tax.

Public health advocates often point to the detainment of reckless carriers of infectious disease as an example of the ethical basis of depriving someone of their liberty for the greater good. However, in these cases society detains the individual at fault. We don't put a lockdown on the rest of the community as well.

There are existing methods to deal with lifestyle-related harm. Harm involving violence must be addressed through the criminal system; failure to punish the individual while lamenting the violence as a public health issue may lead to devastating emotional distress to the victim.

Harm that reduces an individual's success in life must be seen as tolerable in order to preserve freedom. Harm that increases healthcare costs needs to be addressed by targeting with increased charges those who use the increased healthcare services.

Finally, the actual objective data to demonstrate the likely marginal reduction in harm to society from implementing lifestyle taxes is sparse and far from conclusive.


No comments: