You can't tax obesity away
By Dave Hedgepeth
Last week, Mary M. Cheh’s penny-per-ounce “soda tax” was defeated by the D.C. Council, only to be resurrected, in spirit at least, by the council’s decision to apply the city’s 6 percent sales tax to sodas and other sweetened drinks. Obesity in the District is a serious problem. But it is also a complex problem, and taxing sugary drinks is an overly simple solution. The Los Angeles Times put it well in a September 2009 editorial: “The widening of the American silhouette is more complicated than the tax proposals imply, and is not yet fully understood.”
Many nutritionists have identified high-fructose corn syrup as one of the main reasons obesity is on the rise. But the reason this product has become so ubiquitous in the food we eat may lie in the tax code itself. The food industry favors high-fructose corn syrup over sugar because it’s cheaper. And one reason it’s cheaper is because corn is so heavily subsidized by our Agriculture Department. Reducing or eliminating these subsidies would force manufacturers to use a better product (sugar), cause the price of these products to increase and perhaps narrow the price gap between healthful and unhealthful foods.
But the role of parents cannot be understated. Like many parents, my wife and I are concerned about the foods our daughters eat, and we make sure they eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Educating kids about healthy food choices begins at home. Taking the time to explain to kids how to read labels in simple terms — “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” — and emphasizing the link between nutrition and exercise will probably result in those kids turning into adults who eat healthful foods and maintain a healthy weight.
Finally, lost in the hue and cry over “soda taxes,” “yoga taxes” and “theater ticket taxes” is the true purpose of taxation. The primary reason we tax is to raise money for essential services we all need. Because these programs and services benefit everyone, the costs of these programs should be borne by all. Taxing certain groups is divisive, supports the idea that we can get a free lunch and encourages lawmakers to overspend. Constantly examining people’s lifestyles to find ways to tax them is no way to fund our government. The problem of obesity is serious. Let’s find a way to tackle it together.
The writer is a Republican candidate for D.C. Council in Ward 3.
| May 28, 2010; 9:12 PM ET
Categories: D.C., D.C. politics, Fenty, HotTopic, taxes
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