Calories, number of hours spent exercising, number of pounds to lose, those who are overweight now have a new number to worry about: a “fat” tax…

A tax of at least 20 percent placed on sugar-sweetened drinks could drop obesity rates by 3.5 percent and prevent 2,700 heart-related deaths each year, according to the study…

According to the study, some food industry groups say higher taxes could damage the industry and lead to job losses.

But some experts say that cost to jobs is not as risky as the economic cost if Americans remain obese. Obesity costs American businesses $70 billion in lost productivity, another statistic presented in the HBO documentary series.

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A whopping 96% of main entrees sold at top U.S. chain eateries exceed daily limits for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reports the 18-month study conducted by the Rand Corp. and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“If you’re eating out tonight, your chances of finding an entree that’s truly healthy are painfully low,” says Helen Wu, assistant policy analyst at Rand who oversaw the study. It examined the nutritional content of 30,923 menu items from 245 restaurant brands across the USA. “The restaurant industry needs to make big changes to be part of the solution,” she says.

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“Economists generally agree that government intervention, including taxation, is justified when the market fails to provide the optimum amount of a good for society’s well-being,” writes Mytton. “[This] include[s] a failure to appreciate the true association between diet and disease, time inconsistency (preference for short-term gratification over long-term well-being), and not bearing the full health and social costs of consumption.”…

Other studies have shown people with lower incomes struggle more with weight gain. In the review, the authors argue a tax could greatly influence the eating habits of lower-income people. “There is some evidence that those who are poorer are more sensitive to price changes and so would experience greater dietary improvements,” writes Mytton.

But just how plausible is this fat tax? The authors note that the food industry argues taxes would be ineffective, unfair and would lead to job losses in the industry. But U.S. opinion polls show support for sugared beverage taxes ranges from 37% to 72%; people tend to be more in favor when the health benefits of fat taxes are emphasized. Previous studies show that a sharp tax hike on cigarettes in 2009 led to a significant decrease in U.S. smokers. The hope is that a fat tax could produce the same results.

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Make junk food harder to find. Redesign the layouts of grocery stores and cafeterias. Make good-for-you-foods easier to find and make sugar-sweetened beverages and fatty packaged pastries something you have to go on a treasure hunt for. Relegate obesity-promoting foods to bottom shelves and do not give them prime real estate…

Ban unhealthy portion size advertising. I think anything with the word “monster,” “jumbo,” “enormous,” “gut-buster,” or any such verbiage that describes huge portion sizes should not appear in advertising. I do think calorie, saturated fat, and sodium levels should be proudly displayed in all food and beverage advertisements. You want to promote a big gulp? Great. Also post what the cost of gastric bypass surgery is these days. You want to promote overeating on a food show? Great. Also post a Surgeon General’s warning that this type of behavior may also cause diabetes, contribute to heart disease, lead to erectile disorder…you get the idea…

Make federal funding of healthy communities a priority. The CDC gave 17 million dollars to the 2nd fattest city in America (Nashville) to improve city bike and walk ways among other projects to get citizens to move. They have also implemented exercise programs for their police and fire departments to help them get and stay in shape. Many communities do not have adequate sidewalks, ample lighting, or parks and recreational facilities to encourage their citizens to get moving. What wasn’t discussed was the cost of park district or health club memberships. Financial barriers need to be knocked down between those who want to be physically fit and the facilities that can help make that happen.

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Ice cream versus obesity is the key imponderable about the whole policy. I find there’s a striking contrast with the idea of a congestion-based road tax, as advanced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week. The case for the congestion tax is pretty unanswerable: every driver who joins rush-hour traffic is making it worse for every other driver. If we could all get together and agree to drive a bit less, we’d all be better off because when we did drive, our journeys would be quicker and less uncertain. But we can’t enforce that kind of agreement, hence the need for the tax.

It’s all the same: obesity is bad and traffic is bad. I’m not sure why you’re trying to make a distinction.

It’s not the same at all. Each driver causes a problem for others and she can’t be expected to take that into account. But an ice cream lover is causing a problem only for himself. It remains to be demonstrated that he would find an ice cream tax helpful.

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Twinkies and Coke are only half the problem; making them expensive might deter customers, but it won’t make vegetables cheap. It also won’t make it easier for people in food deserts to access fresh food, and it won’t teach people how to make healthy meals. And what’s really horrifying is that, for people who can literally barely afford to feed their families junk food from the 99-cent store, raising prices on even bad-for-you foods would mean that they basically don’t get to eat enough. So not only would they be malnourished; they’d literally be starving.

There are plenty of other logistical issues, like how we would define “unhealthy” foods, and how difficult it would be to implement. But what’s most frustrating to me about the whole idea of a ‘fat tax’ is that it completely overlooks the fact that those foods are cheap to begin with because of food subsidies.

If you’re not familiar with food subsidies, the basic concept is that the government gives money to certain agricultural industries in order to supplement their income, thereby influencing the cost and supply of certain commodities. In the U.S., the meat and dairy industries get huge boosts from the government, as do corn farmers—which is part of why things like Twinkies, Coke, and cheeseburgers are so damn cheap.

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Tags: obesity taxes