Food police or Keystone Kops?

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The New York Times Mark Bittman is in favor of taxing soda. He s also in favor of taxing French fries. And doughnuts. And all hyperprocessed snacks. In his halcyon vision, the resulting funds would be channeled into programs that make healthful foods affordable and accessible to all. This, Bittman says, would solve the nation s high rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Would pie in the sky be an inappropriate metaphor? Because, unfortunately, Bittman s arguments are as simplistic as they are ideologically skewed. His proposal, founded on a distinction between good and bad foods, intentionally ignores the inconvenient facts: portion size and frequency of consumption are what really make the difference in fighting obesity, says ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava. His assumption that a tax on bad foods would truly result in progress in the fight against obesity is just not realistic, Dr. Kava observes. Bittman attempts to bolster his argument with calculations that correlate penny taxes per ounce of bad foods with projected health care savings and grossly over-estimated figures on the weight reduction consequent to these taxes. But such projections are so hypothetical they verge on delusional, says ACSH s Dr Gilbert Ross.

Bittman s real agenda is illustrated most clearly when he attempts to draw a parallel between his proposal of junk food taxes and the government s taxation of cigarettes. As Dr. Ross notes, cigarette taxes have been just a small part of a much wider effort to combat smoking, one that has involved a national educational campaign. The way that Bittman equates cigarettes with food fails to take into account this and many other factors.

For instance, Bittman s continued comparison of his plan to the results of government anti-smoking efforts is less tenable still when he likens this theoretical tax on bad food to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), which allowed states to settle health-related lawsuits against tobacco companies and stipulated those companies financing of anti-smoking efforts. Bittman admits that the settlement was far from perfect but points to the greater than 50 percent decline in American smokers since the 1960s. The only problem with Bittman s observation, says Dr. Ross, is that the rate of smoking in America began to decline most significantly in the 1970s long before the MSA. Furthermore, notes Dr. Ross, Most of the Master Settlement money actually goes into the general operating funds of state budgets across the country. Less than five percent of it goes toward efforts to counter smoking. Both he and Dr. Kava note that, especially in the current economic climate, the bad food tax revenue that Bittman envisions being returned to communities for local spending on gyms, pools, jogging, and bike trails, as well as to make produce and whole grains more accessible to all, would never come to pass.

Unfortunately, Dr. Ross observes, Bittman s Sunday Times opinion piece amounts not to a workable plan but, rather, to an ideological diatribe.