Food Taxes: An unproven means of fighting obesity

Related articles

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.11.19 PMWe ve been hearing them for years proposals to tax certain foods or beverages because of their purported health effects. Now a Belgian professor, Olivier de Schutter, has issued a statement, according to a Reuters report, that Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. To cope with the issue, de Schutter draws a parallel between tobacco control, and we guess food control. His statement was issued at the annual meeting of the World Health Organization, and echoed a report he delivered in 2012.

Just as government bodies at several levels have increased taxes on tobacco products, allegedly to decrease their use, he thinks that a similar strategy will help reduce obesity. Also, he believes we should regulate foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, and regulate advertising of junk food.

While we understand the professor s concerns, we disagree with this proposal on more than one level. First, tobacco use and food consumption are very different entities, and any comparison of the two is manipulative and disingenuous. Although both enter the body through the mouth, they are not similar when it comes to control. People can live very well without inhaling tobacco smoke (and tobacco smoke is far and away the most dangerous form of use); but of course no one can live without food and water. So since one must eat and drink, the issue boils down to choices.

Although it s tempting to assume that decreasing the purchase of supposedly unhealthful foods and beverages will result in a good diet, that s not necessarily true. Pricing consumers out of the market for full sugar soft drinks, for example, will not necessarily mean they start drinking only water.

In addition, while it s simple to state that unhealthy foods should be decreased, the question arises as to who will decide that certain foods are healthy or not? Most people would agree that spinach is a healthful food, but what about when it s combined in a casserole with sausage and cheese both high in saturated fats? And the possible combinations are unlimited.

After all, it s poor diets that result in untoward health effects, as professor de Schutter acknowledges, not particular foods. If we want people to select better diets, they must first of all know what those diets consist of. And just demonizing particular foods and beverages will not accomplish that.

ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan notes It s a real failure of logic to conflate tobacco use, especially cigarette smoking, with poor food choices. Although control efforts have helped bring down the smoking rates in the US, there are still over 400,000 deaths per year that can be directly attributed to cigarette smoking. But education is even more important when addressing the issue of obesity; taxation may lead to decreased consumption of particular foods and beverages, but will not necessarily lead to decreased calorie consumption or obesity.