Will we have a fattening food tax? I doubt it. But even the discussion of this idea is disturbing to me for two rather different reasons.
First, the current conversation about this approach involves some appalling bigotry. In their statement of why they think the food tax could work, The Urban Institute says that part of the rationale “involves personal responsibility, argued as follows: People have the right to buy food that will make them obese. But they need to take responsibility for the costs they impose on the rest of us. They do this by paying a fattening food tax, which helps defray the publicly funded medical costs that result from obesity.”
The last time I read a statement about obesity that made me this angry it was at the end of Peter Singer’s book The Way We Eat. Dr. Singer says: “If I choose to overeat and develop obesity-related health problems that require medical care, other people will probably have to bear some of the cost.” He goes on to note that some people do have metabolic disorders that interfere with weight control but “others just eat too much and should show more restraint.”
Behind these statements is the widely held, uncharitable and incorrect belief that if someone is fat, it’s their own damn fault. In fact, researchers suspect that the rise in obesity over the last several decades is due to a mix of genetic and environmental factors. The genetic factors have always been there in certain people. It’s only in our toxic food environment that they have been expressed.
That sounds like an argument in favor of the fat tax, I know; we can tweak the environment by making fattening foods more expensive/less available. And yes, I think it’s true that putting a higher price tag on some of the real culprits—empty calorie soft drinks, snack chips, and fast foods—could be one small part of the answer.
But whatever we do to counter the problem of obesity, the blame needs to be directed at the food industry and their friends in government and the health industry—not at the people who suffer from obesity.
And even if a fattening food tax—along with a labeling scheme developed by the Urban Institute—may be part of a solution to the complex problem of obesity, how will it affect the vegan cause? The Urban Institute suggests ranking foods according to a nutrient profile model used in Great Britain. And according to that model, skim milk, chicken breast and low-fat yogurt all rank as healthier than bran flakes and plain popcorn.
As I’ve noted here before, the vegan cause is never well-served by health arguments. If anything, the fattening food tax emphasizes the fact that not every animal food is unhealthful. We’ll never be able to argue effectively that people should give up all animal foods for health reasons–and we shouldn’t look to the fattening food tax to help.