Burger Taxes in Virginia?

October 18, 2006

Much discussion lately has centered on the issue of obesity in America, and the role government should have, if any, in trying to promote healthier individuals. The issue has come up again in Virginia as a state report looks at recommendations at policies that the state could adopt to get people to live healthier lives. And as usual, this type of social planning involves the use of tax policy. From the Danville Register-Bee:

Sedentary lifestyles and a “clean your plate” mentality are making Virginians fat, according to a preliminary Health Department report that suggests mandatory gym classes and higher taxes on all-you-can-eat buffets. The report also recommends a statewide “Just Say No” campaign to supersizing and more and safer exercise areas in neighborhoods. It’s the latest phase of the state’s CHAMPION obesity initiative, and compiles suggestions from 800 community members who gathered at regional forums, said Jeremy Akers, a dietitian who heads the program through with the Virginia Department of Health. The information will be compiled in a final report next summer offering statewide strategies for curbing obesity, he said.

But the proposals go further:

In central Virginia, for instance, residents suggested lower taxes on healthy foods and insurance incentives for fit workers, while in northern Virginia participants thought there should be mandatory nutrition training for anyone receiving public assistance.

In the Blue Ridge region, community leaders wanted to see higher taxes for fatty buffets and foods sold in jumbo portion sizes, in addition to a “burger tax” on fast food restaurants.

The first question is why is it the role of government in a free society to determine whether or not we want to eat healthy foods or eat non-healthy foods? Does the government have more information than the individual? If so, then why not just release that information to the public and let them decide what to eat or when to exercise?

But if we still want to go down the road of government punishing/rewarding individuals for the health choices they make, the advocates of such policies should try and go after the “problem” directly, right? That is, they should go directly at the source of obesity and impose a tax on every person’s weight via mandatory weigh-ins each year. The reason this would be a superior method for their anti-obesity goal is because governments trying to tax select items like soda or buffets on everyone is not going directly after the issue of obesity as there are many unhealthy choices outside the scope of government policy that a person can make that will lead to obesity; and also many healthy individuals would be unfairly punished for scarcely eating foods that the government deemed “unhealthy” but which would leave unchanged their health factor. This idea of mandatory weigh-ins may sound ridiculous right now, but as we travel further down the road of government paternalism, what may sound ludicrous one moment is quickly a policy proposal from some policymaker. For more on why obesity taxes are extremely poor tax policy, especially in a supposedly free society, click here, here, here, and here.


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