In public health policy, you can’t get much more divisive or controversial than the topic of taxes on high calorie foods. It doesn’t help put out the fire when researchers say that the tax actually works.
Researchers used nearly 200 college students in an experiment to see how their food purchases would change, if at all, when there is a substantial tax on high-calorie foods.
“The most important finding of our study is that a tax of 25 percent or more on (high-calorie) foods makes nearly everyone buy fewer calories,” says lead researcher Janneke Giesen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
The only exception was people who were already calorie-conscious in the first place – their decisions were not swayed either way with the food tax.
The idea of requiring restaurants and other food sellers to divulge calorie information to customers has gotten wide publicity in recent years, best known for the legislation in New York, which in 2008 became the first city in the country to mandate that fast food restaurants and coffee chains publish calorie information on their menus.
The controversy is not only in what role the government should have, but also in the fact that the policies have so far given mixed results.
There are problems with this study, one of which being that it was a small sample size. Also, using college students may not be indicative of the choices of the entire population, since college student budgets aren’t the same as older adults.
Then there are the ethical arguments of how far the government should go in regulating and taxing unhealthy foods. While I support the law of forcing food seller to reveal nutritional information – hey, that’s just giving full-disclosure to your customers – I’m not so certain about the tax idea.
My main beef is that a major tax punishes people who can moderate their junk food intake enough to not let it significantly affect their health. Would I be for a much smaller tax (two percent maybe?) that wasn’t about being a deterrent and was more about paying some form of public health expense? That’s more plausible.
That said, I don’t buy into the notion of these ideas as simply a “nanny-state.” Sure, some ideas go too far, but the idea that there should never be intervention when our very existence may depend upon it, is short-sighted. If the greater good of our country is at risk, whether it’s something everyone understands (terrorism) or breaking our backs with the expenses of health care with preventable illnesses, there are times when the needs of our country may outweigh our self-interest.
If that’s not enough for you, at what point do we need to get before we understand the enormity of the problem. When it’s too late?
February 22nd, 2011