Swatting the Obesity Fly with the Tax Sledgehammer

July 12, 2005

Wary of Australia’s expanding waistlines, a Sydney sociologist has floated a plan to curb obesity with selective excise taxes on fatty foods of up to 50 percent. From the Melbourne Herald-Sun:

Fast food could be subject to a new tax of up to 50 per cent under a plan to fight Australia’s worsening obesity epidemic.

The proposed fat tax would, hopefully, steer consumers away from calorie and sugar-laden foods and force them to choose cheaper, healthier options.

Similar to hefty tax rises on cigarettes, the move aims to slash illness and death caused by obesity… Sydney sociologist Dr John Germov will float the plan at the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology in Sydney tomorrow.

“We need a way of addressing the obesity problem because diets are notoriously unsuccessful — 95 per cent of diets fail,” Dr Germov said.

One problem with obesity taxes: they’re an extraordinarily blunt tool for social policy. A fast food tax, for example, would penalize fit people who enjoy an occasional burger as well as the obese.

If the true goal were weight reduction, why not take more direct steps toward that—for example, by putting taxpayers on a scale upon driver’s license renewal and assessing a “weight penalty”?

As we’ve written before, the more we ask of the tax system, the more it asks of us. Implementing social policy through the tax code—rather than direct spending programs—leaves the rent-seeking barn door wide open for tax-preferences-seekers of all persuasions.

And unfortunately, we all know where that can lead.


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