Barry Popkin and others have suggested a tax on sugar – or specifically on soft drinks – to curb the obesity-diabetes problem. Access Economics’ Lynne Pezzulo explained at the International Obesity Congress yesterday why such ‘fat taxes’ won’t be effective or fair.
There are several issues here. Taxes on unhealthy food would fall primarily on the poor who tend to eat less healthy diets – they are regressive. Being poor is associated with eating a poor diet and with being fat. In addition, the demand for food is quite price-inelastic so unrealistically large taxes would be necessary to alter consumption patterns. Further it may not only be the type of food consumed but also its quantity that drives obesity – for many bread is not a junk food but eat a loaf of it a day without an extensive accompanying exercise program and you are likely to have weight problems.
Pezzelo’s views were in stark contrast to the views of obesity researchers who favoured more heavy-handed regulation such as taxes, global advertising bans on all junk foods and subsidies for healthy foods.
Public opinion polls don’t generally supporting restricting the availability of high fat or sugary foods – most citizens believe instead that kids should just get more exercise.
In my view taxes are impractical partly because scientists cannot agree on what junk food is.
I also think that Pezzulo’s comments above are sound. As argued in an earlier post I do think however that there could be a case for an advertising ban on fast foods during child TV programs. I also think there is a strong case for providing people better nutritional information and for encouraging overweight Australians to take blood sugar tests to check on their diabetes status. Avoiding or delaying the complications of Type 2 diabetes complications would far more than adequately fund such a public information campaign. Otherwise I am fairly ambivalent about the case for introducing activist anti-obesity problems – although, giving that I am only beginning my research in this area, I try to keep an open mind.