How to Enforce a Fat Tax

June 13, 2008

From the New York Times:

AMAGASAKI, Japan – Japan, a country not known for its overweight people, has undertaken one of the most ambitious campaigns ever by a nation to slim down its citizenry.[…]

Under a national law that came into effect two months ago, companies and local governments must now measure the waistlines of Japanese people between the ages of 40 and 74 as part of their annual checkups. That represents more than 56 million waistlines, or about 44 percent of the entire population.

Those exceeding government limits – 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women, which are identical to thresholds established in 2005 for Japan by the International Diabetes Federation as an easy guideline for identifying health risks – and having a weight-related ailment will be given dieting guidance if after three months they do not lose weight. If necessary, those people will be steered toward further re-education after six more months.

To reach its goals of shrinking the overweight population by 10 percent over the next four years and 25 percent over the next seven years, the government will impose financial penalties on companies and local governments that fail to meet specific targets. The country’s Ministry of Health argues that the campaign will keep the spread of diseases like diabetes and strokes in check.[…]

Former Tax Foundation Summer Fellow Adam Creighton came up with an idea like this in a tongue-in-cheek paper he wrote last year:

It would be a progressive tax: the fatter the taxpayer, the higher the tax. The top of the “normal” range for BMI is 24. A BMI above 25 would pay a small surtax, say 5 percent, BMI 30s would pay 10 percent, etc. The brilliance of Art Laffer’s flat income tax notwithstanding, a flat fat tax simply would not work, since it would not encourage weight-control once the taxpayer’s BMI was well above the taxation threshold.

To deter falsified BMIs, IRS doctors could offer a second opinion. BMI audits might be required at three or six-month intervals to get an accurate reading of each taxpayer’s average BMI during the year, and to prevent unhealthy fasting during the tax season. And given the latest research showing obesity spreads socially, the IRS could even demand friendship data (cross-checked) to ensure individual friendship networks don’t exceed a particular fat-friends quota.

Unlike communism’s poor, capitalism’s poor are generally fat, and the very poor even fatter. Indeed, up to one third of the three-year-old children in low-income families are reported to be fat or obese. Thus, to ensure its efficacy, any fat tax should be a bottom-line item on Form 1040, paid after all deductions and credits. For many obese, poor people, the passage of the fat-person tax may be the first time they’ve ever filed a 1040 with a positive liability: an especially poignant incentive to lose weight!

A fat-person tax, being evidently simple, transparent and well targeted, is not weighed down by any of the implementation problems of a fatty-food tax. But politicians should act now-the obese will soon be a majority, and once that happens, the fat cats in Congress will never enact a fat tax.


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