Monday, January 28, 2013

Taxing junk food?

Nice story on the BBC World website. Leading UK medical bodies, among them the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, propose that soft drinks should be hit with a special tax (about 20p per litre). The objective, obviously, is to reduce demand for such products. Why would one want to reduce demand for such products? Mostly because they can be linked to the obesity epidemic in the country. According to the BBC report, 'one in four adults is classified as obese and one in three children is already obese or overweight before they finish primary school.' 

Basically these experts propose to treat soft drinks pretty much like smoking and alcohol are being treated in taxation term. The argument is that consumption of such junk food leads predictably to an increase in obesity and a whole range of known, and expensive to treat, illnesses caused by obesity. Reducing obesity would overall result in an increase in individual (and aggregative societal) well-being and longevity. These are clearly all desirable goals.  

To make things look good, their proposal also includes suggestions such as how government should spend the extra tax dollars (well, Pounds). It is proposed that government spends it on subsidies for fruit and school meal improvements in general. Great idea, considering that school meals in many school in that country qualify at best as junk food. 

There is no great risk that the current Conservative/Liberal UK government will run with this proposal. It has been busy trying to get industry to volunteer improvements on the soft drink frontiers. Industry folks claim that the addition of sugar to soft drinks has already decreased significantly. Well, assuming that that is true, I guess soft drinks that ain't directly linked to obesity could be exempted. I don't know, of course, whether there might be other problems with soft drinks beyond the sugar, indeed, I don't even know whether the industry guy who points out that 61% of soft drinks contain no added sugar tells the truth. He also points out that the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has fallen while obesity has increased anyway. If he's right, one can't help but think of other worthy targets for higher taxes.

I am not opposed to punitive tax rates on demonstrably unhealthy food products...but, the moment you look at this sentence, you can't help but wonder where this will end? Glasgow's fried Mars bars anyone? Fries with mayonaise anyone? Cake? The list of crap we eat and enjoy is pretty endless. FWIW, I recently had a fried Mars bar, because I wanted to know how this ur-Scottish culinary delight tastes. Well, it's gross. Tax it to the hilt as far as I care. Just kidding :). 

There's a serious point to this though: it seems to me that if one wanted to do this truly fairly one would have to balance the quality-of-life benefits folks derive from gobbling down junk food of any kind against the societal quality-of-life costs. People don't enjoy junk food only because they live in food deserts, or because they're poor and can't help it/don't know better (add your favourite assumption/prejudice about the kinds of people that eat junk food), etc. Many folks enjoy junk food because they enjoy the taste of it. Being a proper continental European I love my fries with mayo. We know our lifestyle choices ain't particularly healthy, and we don't care in the end. Health is only one value among many that make life worth living. It is a very important value, but it isn't uncontroversially on top of anyone's hierarchy of values. So, taking pleasure out of our lives (or making our pleasures more expensive by means of tax policies) requires sound justifications that go beyond pointing to health consequences. 

It seems to me that such taxes can probably be justified - and they might ultimately be a good idea. It should be interesting to see whether this experiment would result in the desirable health outcomes its proponents are hoping for. However, in a just society there should then be equal taxation for other products that are equally detrimental to our health. Guess one could quantify what kinds of damages what kinds of products cause and tax (or insure) accordingly. That is, provided the choices those make who indulge are reasonably their own and not choices determined by forces beyond their control (eg food deserts). 

Anyhow, guess I am just thinking aloud here. One worry I have is clearly to do with the question of where this will end. But then, in philosophy we know that slippery-slope arguments are typically terrible, unsustainable arguments, so I suspect reasonable, definsible lines can probably be drawn in the sand. How and where would you draw them? 

1 comment:

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