Is a ‘fat tax’ the answer to fighting obesity?

France latest country to initiate law on sugary drinks

By Linda Watts, Vancouver Courier November 25, 2011

Last month, France initiated legislation to impose a “fat tax” on regular soft drinks and other sugary beverages. The surcharge is intended to help fight the country’s escalating obesity epidemic.

Contrary to what Mireille Guiliano-author of French Women Don’t Get Fat-would like us to believe, France’s National Institute for Health and Medical Research reports that more than 20 million French people are now overweight; seven million of those individuals are considered obese.

France’s taxation policy follows on the heels of Denmark’s introduction of a levy on saturated fat-containing goods such as dairy products and butter. Sweden, Norway and Hungary are considering a similar tariff.

Closer to home, the Canadian Medical Association has recommended higher taxes on junk food while the B.C. Medical Association is encouraging the taxation of sugarsweetened beverages. Because of its elusive definition, applying a tariff to junk food, per se, will require a great deal of debate. Taxing sugary drinks appears more straightforward.

Regular soda pop, fruit-flavoured beverages and sports drinks are North American’s greatest source of added sugar. To boot, sugary beverages tend to interfere with our ability to feel full; the human body doesn’t recognize the calories from these nutrient-deficient liquids as well as those from solid food.

Evidence linking the consumption of empty-calorie beverages with elevated risks of gaining weight and developing diabetes has prompted groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization to advocate moderation.

But will increasing the price of these drinks lead to wallet-induced willpower that significantly halts the expansion of our waistlines?

Although there’s little research supporting the effectiveness of such a measure, fat tax proponents cite alcohol and tobacco as positive examples. International studies show that public education on drinking and smoking can only do so much; increasing taxes on booze and smokes is the most cost-effective way to reduce their consumption.

According to the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, a 10 per cent increase in the price of cigarettes results in an overall three to five per cent reduction in cigarette use. The tobacco industry’s prime targets, youth, minorities and low-income smokers, are most affected by taxation.

Fat tax supporters hope to see the generated revenue directed towards funding healthy eating and physical activity initiatives, as well as financing subsidies for nutrient-dense foods, thus making them more affordable to Canadians of all socioeconomic groups.

Opponents, on the other hand, tend to view fat tax as nothing more than another government cash cow.

And who can blame them for being cynical about the actual allocation of this cash?

Adversaries generally believe the tariff is too simplistic an approach to dealing with the obesity epidemic and some go so far as to question why everyone, no matter what their size, has to pay. To them, a better solution involves people-of-girth taking more responsibility for their impact on health care costs by paying higher Medicare premiums.

One of the repercussions of living in our weight-biased society is such intolerance and ignorance. How quickly we forget that the number on the scales is only one of several indicators of our physical wellbeing; a low or “normal” weight doesn’t guarantee good health and a low reliance on our health care system. Think of chain smokers and alcoholics, who are typically under-weight. Like excessive smoking and drinking, many factors come into play to cause obesity; it isn’t simply the result of an individual’s behaviour. If it was, we wouldn’t have an epidemic on our hands in the first place.

The naysayers, however, are right about one thing: a fat tax won’t do it alone. Resolving the obesity crisis will take years of simultaneously applying complementary strategies. Along with public health education efforts and evidence-based medical treatment, practices have to be regulatory and economic policies that fight powerful industry lobbyists; limit TV and internet advertisements of nutrient-inferior food and beverages (particularly those aimed at children and teens); and comprehensively tax such fare.

A good start is a one-cent-per-ounce excise tax on not only regular soft drinks but all sugar-laden beverages, on the market today, that have little to no nutritional value. And while we’re at it, let’s shift from using the shaming term, “fat tax”-another product of our weight-obsessed culture-and use a more accurate descriptor: Preventative Health Initiative (PHI) tax, anyone?

Linda Watts is a registered dietitian. Send questions or comments to wattslin@gmail.com. Visit her food and nutrition blog at lindawatts.blogspot.com.

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