Say Yes to Bigotry and No To Veganism With the Fattening Food Tax?

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.

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6 Responses to Say Yes to Bigotry and No To Veganism With the Fattening Food Tax?

  1. Cathy July 28, 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    I think you're right about the vegan cause itself, but, with all respect – I really have to disagree with not holding people at least partially responsible for their obesity. I've struggled with my weight all my life, even now probably one of the chunkiest vegans you'll meet (it's just how I'm built) ;) But I think it's good to empower people by letting them know they do have control over what they eat, and that they can get to a healthy weight if they make good nutritional choices.

    Sodas ARE vegan and I have no problem taxing the heck out of the stuff, any more than taxing cigarettes. Any food that is devoid of nutrients, fiber, and other stuff that the body needs would seem fair game for taxes, especially if we're looking at universal health coverage. Obesity alone will break our backs if we don't encourage people to get to a healthy weight.

    I think that the "fattening food tax" is a separate issue from the vegan cause, although veganism obviously can be a very healthy way to eat. I did lose 30 lbs the first year I went vegan and have not gained it back, even eating pretty much as much as I want (of the right things ;)).

  2. Ginny Messina July 28, 2009 at 6:42 pm #

    Thanks for your comment, Cathy. There is a difficult balancing act here, because you are absolutely right that people need to feel empowered to make good choices and achieve a healthier weight. At the same time, there is a lot we don't understand about obesity and it breaks my heart to see people struggle unsuccessfully with weight and THEN be told that they are weak, gluttonous and selfish and costing the country money.

    Probably almost anyone can lose weight, but some people–as you know–really do gain and hold onto weight more easily than others. I really hope we can find ways to empower people to make better choices without blaming them. It's a tough issue, though and I'm not sure what the answer is.

  3. Anonymous July 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm #

    It's crazy to say that being fat is anything but a choice for the huge majority of obese people. Yes, some people have medical conditions or they're Pacific Islanders or something equally unusual, but the key is that MOST people who are fat (and over the age of say 16) are to blame for the problem. Telling the otherwise is doing more harm than good.

    I know this from personal experience. I started getting fat when I was around eight years old. Thirty years later I was 5'8" and weighed 270 lbs. One day I decided that was bad. I changed my eating and exercise habits. Now I'm 40, still 5'8" tall but I weigh 160. No fad diets, no surgery, no pills and most importantly for this discussion NO CHANGE in the food industry or the government's policies.
    Being fat was my fault. Fixing it was my problem and I did fix it without first completely overhauling the entire country. If I'd listened to people like you, I'd still be waiting for someone to help me out of the mess they created for poor innocent me. And having another slice of cake while I waited.

  4. Sat Garcia July 29, 2009 at 7:10 am #

    The problem with the "fat tax" is that it unfairly targets the poor (that is to say, it is a regressive tax). Impoverished areas generally have poor access to fresh, healthy food and thus taxing unhealthy food would just be a straight tax for them.

    Sure, there is a personally responsibility aspect of weight control (I know: I lost about 100 lbs 10 years ago :) ) but we can't expect to tax obesity out of existance.

  5. Cathy July 30, 2009 at 11:02 am #

    It is an injustice in America that less healthy foods are subsidized, and thus our own government is enabling people to eat more salt, fat, and sugar than they should. Even with their preposterous food pyramid, advising us to eat so many veggies, fruits, and whole grains but then making other foods more cost-effective to buy.

    I completely agree that "fat taxes" are regressive, however, the reason that poor people buy unhealthier foods is because it is cheaper, due to government subsidies. I could go along with taxing the crap out of soda, ice cream, and big macs… and using the money to subsidize the healthy foods. Alternatively, remove federal subsidies from key ingredients (HFCS, for example). I think this would at least help balance the market and make "eating healthy" an affordable option for everyone.

    Lastly, I also agree that we can't berate people into healthy lifestyles. I never wanted to quit smoking as long as people were haranguing me about it, telling me what a bad, sloppy, smelly person I was, and how much better nonsmokers were than me. Non-judgmental encouragement goes a long way.

    This is a very important topic, thanks for the opportunity to discuss :)

  6. Miss Rachel's Pantry July 31, 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    In response to Sat Garcia and probably to this entire article –
    there must be a level of responsibility on the consumer's behalf for creating demand. If no one wanted sugary drinks, Pepsi would have to stop making them and adapt. Similarly, there have been studies done (those I know of are in my city) – where fresh vegetables are brought to inner city areas for eating/taking/sampling and the moral of the story is that when vegetables become unfamilar to a group, they become foreign and undesireable.
    To fix the low cost, unhealthy food problem in poorer communities would take more than switching up what is available to them. It's about changing a mindset, as well. I don't believe taxing would help from the beginning (maybe eventually after healthier food has been made cheaper and has assimiliated into poorer areas).

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