In last Saturday’s editorial (“Raise revenues by taxing junk,” Feb. 9), the readers of the Telegraph Journal were subjected to some pretty questionable thinking concerning obesity and taxes on junk food. The editorial argues that by taxing junk food not only will New Brunswickers get healthier, the tax will also lower the provincial deficit since the government spends $3 billion a year on health care. The editorial sites a study that claims an excise tax of 10 per cent tax on junk food will decrease consumption by 10 per cent.
Let’s deal with that 10 per cent claim first. Raise taxes and, most likely, demand will drop for some so-called junk foods. But these numbers are only estimates based on economic models.
In a recent Cornell University study on the impact of taxes on soft drink consumption, the researchers found that taxes don’t hold out much hope of lowering obesity. In a controlled experiment where half the households faced a 10 per cent tax on soda consumption and the other half did not, the tax discouraged consumption only for the first month with little change thereafter. What the experiment did show is that beer consumption increased for those facing higher soda taxes.
Advocates of a sin tax say it worked for tobacco and it’ll work for junk foods. But smoking rates started falling before higher taxes kicked in and can be traced to the U.S. Surgeon General’s warnings in the 1960s. Taxes played a role no doubt, but smoking had external costs to non-smokers. Tobacco is only one product with no substitutes; it’s a far different story when it comes to taxing so-called junk foods. Besides, no one needs to smoke, but we all need to eat. And that leads to the second point.
Obesity is a far more complex issue than the editorial assumes. If we’ve learned anything from the innumerable studies on obesity, it is that weight gain is much more complicated than we once thought, with no simple solution that works for everyone. If taxes were the answer, obesity would be easy to beat. People throughout North America spend billions annually on diets. What makes us think that a few more cents on a candy bar or can of pop will do any good.
We have to reboot our brains so we know how to eat and take care of ourselves better. But we are learning. According to Stats Can figures, Canadians have decreased their consumption of soft drinks by 30 per cent over the last decade, and without government intervention. Fighting obesity is an individual struggle that takes time, patience and education, and no simplistic government policy that taxes junk foods will change that fact. In the end, taxing junk food will no doubt increase revenues but will do nothing to decrease obesity.
We got fat one person at a time, and we’ll have to reverse the process the same way.
Patrick Luciani is co-author of ‘XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.’ The book was short listed for the Donner Prize in Public Policy in 2011. He is also senior fellow at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.