Sunday, August 30, 2009


An article in the August 23, 2009 edition of the LA Times reports about the possibility of a “Sin Tax” on junk food. This would be similar to the one currently imposed on cigarettes. The purpose of such a tax would be to deter the purchase and consumption of junk foods and steer people towards eating healthier food.

The thinking behind such a tax is that by directing people to eat healthier food and avoid sweet, salty junk food, we can have an impact on reducing the incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity in this country. In principle, this is a great idea. However, statistics from places already imposing this kind of tax reveal another story.

In Maine, for example, a 5.5% snack tax actually coincided with a doubling of the obesity rate from 10% to 20%. In other countries, such a tax apparently drove consumers from sweet foods to high fat and salt-rich foods. The result of such a diet is well known to have an adverse impact on health by increasing the rate of high blood pressure and heart disease. I think it is essential to move people to eat healthier food in general. But, simple nutritional education or the imposition of new taxes by themselves, just don’t seem to do the trick.

I recently saw a brilliant film called Food Inc. This documentary looks at the US food industry. It not only shows in high relief how our food is processed, but also depicts the politics and financial realities that work behind the scenes of US food production. The picture is appalling.

First of all, it is incredible to see example-after-example presented of how unconscious we are of the foods we consume every day. In addition, it is startling to understand the scope and impact that the massive, food corporations have on manipulating our food, often operating with complete impunity and wielding enough power to make the government genuflect. One frightening projection sees that in the next ten years, one out of three young people in this country will have Type II Diabetes. This statistic is terrifying especially in light of the national debate about universal health care coverage. The prospect of millions more diabetics will see medical costs and insurance rates skyrocket in this country. And guess who is going to pay for it? Not the big food companies.

I think that if we are contemplating universal health care reform, we should also be seriously considering some kind of enforcement of healthy, dietary guidelines. If the government is going to foot the bill, then there should be some accountability from the food industry to help improve our diet. It is a basic fact that eating a healthier diet can dramatically reduce most of the illnesses we face today. If the food industry is allowed to be driven solely by profitability and to continue producing whatever sweet, fat, salty garbage they want to sell to the public, then they should be held responsible for the consequences. After all, there is a successful precedent with reform of the tobacco industry.

The government is not going to be able to afford to pay for health care with such a large percentage of the American population suffering from various preventable illnesses. The stated foundation of health insurance is that the premiums of healthy individuals help to defray the cost of treating the sick. This logic will not work when significant proportions of the population are ill and require health care. If we insist on eating unhealthy food and the food industry continues to produce it, then they should be held responsible for footing the bill for the resultant illnesses and disease. It is logical and more importantly, it is in the public interest to let them reap what they sow.

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