Fat tax is unsavory option

DALLAS -- America, we're getting fatter. And it is costing us: It's cutting our lives short, driving up the cost of health care and leading to less productive lives. And it needs to stop.
We know what it takes to get in shape and stay fit. But we actively choose not to do it. Enter the dean of the University of Virginia's Medical School, who has imposed a tax on vending machines at his school and is suggesting other public schools follow suit. This is just the latest in a movement to force us into doing the right thing by hitting us where it really counts -- no, not in the bloated belly -- but in the wallet.
Health-conscious groups like the American Medical Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest want to heap higher taxes on sodas and fatty snacks to encourage people to eat better and generate money for health promotion campaigns. A number of states already charge such taxes.
Why use sin tax?
Taxes on fatty foods follow in the footsteps of other "sin taxes" on products like tobacco, beer and booze. Sin taxes are often perceived to be win-win: The tax is only paid by those who engage in socially undesirable behavior such as smoking, drinking, eating fatty food, and if people quit to avoid the tax, they -- and society -- are better off. Sin taxes also have proved to be a politically safe way for state legislatures to increase state revenues.
The trouble is families with lower incomes spend more of their income on "sinful" products, and thus bear a larger proportional burden when those products get more expensive.
Some suggest that higher prices on unhealthy foods may encourage people to reduce their consumption. We don't know for sure how higher prices will affect purchases, but we can make an educated guess based on the extensive research on the devil's other sinful products, like tobacco.
Higher tobacco prices encourage the poor to quit smoking at a higher rate than the wealthy. Taxes on fatty foods are likely to do the same, because the poor -- by necessity -- are more responsive to prices than rich people. The problem is those who don't dial back are worse off because they're paying higher prices. Those who do reduce consumption are considered worse off because they can no longer afford to purchase something they want.
A question of choice
Smoking, drinking or eating fatty foods is, after all, a choice. Why should the government have a role in people's choices about smoking or eating, any more than it has a role in what car you buy, whether you skydive or what brand of soap you use?
Encouraging kids to eat healthy by revamping menus in public schools to include healthier fare is one thing. But coddling adults, even young adults, who are capable of making their own choices, is downright crummy.
Then again, maybe we're so far gone that we need Big Brother to hike the price of fatty foods and tell us what to eat. And maybe we shouldn't worry so much about the effects of sin taxes on the poor. While I ponder that, pass the M & amp;Ms. I need a snack.
Matthew P. Moore is senior policy analyst with the National Center for Policy Analysis, (www.ncpa.com), a conservative, free-market think tank. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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