Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tax the Fat

The old motto used to be 'tax the rich.' It would be nice if that motto still stood. But a new motto appears to be taking its place, which is that of 'tax the fat.' The argument is much simpler to make to the public. There's an obesity problem in North America and this represents a serious pulic health issue, therefore, taxes should be imposed on the sale of fatty items, in the same vein as the taxes imposed on tobacco products and alcohol. But one look at the numbers on this issue makes it much less clear.

A study conducted in American middle schools indicated by the numbers that the increase in sales of fatty foods in schools did not result in an increase in obesity among the students. The results were so surprising to a team of scientists that they initially believed their results were wrong and delayed publication of their findings. It seems that other factors, such as neighbourhoods and home life, may be a bigger contributor to shaping eating habits and healthy attitudes.

Similar research supports this notion. What happens in the home and the attitudes towards one's health and body may be more important than the availability of junk food. Research also points to the fact that messaging is ineffective within the home if it's not supported by action; 'do as I say and not as I do' has never been a good parenting model. Just as education is often affected by parents (those with higher degrees are more likely to have children with higher degrees), health is also learned and best learned through real life examples.

The lesson here may be that if children are going to do better, their parents must do better. It is up to them to provide good healthy habits. Their children are not the 'victims' of slick marketing by food companies. Health is all about choices and while education can go a certain way, as well as limited access, it is ultimately up to us to decide what we consume or don't consume. A 20% tax on junk food won't stop determined midnight hamburger runs. Taxation on tobacco is generally ineffective in curbing smoking; it will be much the same for pop and chips.

Junk food alone is not the enemy of good health. It's attitudes and lifestyle choice. By showing people the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle, people will be more inclined to improve themselves rather than through taxation and shaming. The benefits are numerous: improved sleep, strength, stamina, increased energy levels, better concentration, boosted ego and just looking great in clothes.

If the government wants more effective policies for public health than taxation, it need look no further than simple and cost-effective solutions. Bring gym class back to schools. Bring back the milk program for children. Let nutritionists into the schools with Canada's Health Guide. Build more community centres with active programming like dance classes and basketball. Subsidize local farming. It could all be so simple.

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