Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fat Tax? Fat Chance!

An interesting news item that made the headlines today was a report that came out of the U.K. It suggested that Western developed countries grappling with soaring obesity rates and mulling “fat” taxes on junk food would have to set these taxes as high as 20% for them to become effective in their goal of penalizing and preventing junk food consumption.

The reasoned forum for debate around issues affecting North Americans followed its usual trajectory on the comment boards.  The “left” stressed the need for action, lest we further expose ourselves to the perils of rampant diabetes, heart attacks, depression, and Segway ridership.  The “right” then weighed in with the requisite vitriolic anti-nanny state howling and libertarian chest-thumping.  Economist nerds then interrupted them with their correct reservations about the unintended consequences of blanket legislation and regulation, the irrational behavior of consumers, and the laws of supply and demand.  You know, they were all right.

It has already been irrefutably demonstrated that humans in developed countries have easier and cheaper access to fatty, sugary, salty processed foods than at any other people have at any time in our species’ history.  Scientists have also sensibly posited that humans, when faced with these calories, are not inclined to turn them down.  In fact, the scientists demonstrated that humans are physiologically prevented from turning them down.

Scientists and economists, bleeding hearts and heartless bastards all have their ideas on what to do about this issue.  But I will tell you why it all amounts to hot air.  The most observant comment I read about a hypothetical fat tax was that it is not a tax on obesity, it’s a tax on laziness.  And we all know how lazy people are in our convenience-obsessed society.

Consider the work in going to the supermarkets, farmers markets, and the dirt patch out back to procure good food.  Is there good affordable food out there? Of course there is!  But you have to know where to find good produce, and buy it when it is in season/on sale so you don’t lose your shirt.  At my house, we do a weekly run to the farmer’s market which, where we live, is on par with or cheaper than the grocery store, plus assorted runs throughout the month to five different grocery stores, a drug store that has cheap grocery items, two Asian food stores and three bakeries.  None of them are more than 3km from our house, but all make it into the rotation when trading off quality, price, and variety.  When we get home, planning, storing, preparing and cooking the food takes on average I would say at least 70-90 minutes a day.

Is it worth it? You bet it is.  I feel nourished, buoyant, and productive, most of the time.  Every day, most people at my work are eating slop from the cafeteria, or greasy takeout (which I don’t mind once a month), or those wretched frozen dinners, while I have my high quality leftovers I’ve brought with me.  This alone saves me thousands per year, not to mention I can actually look forward to lunch hour.  But is it easy? Not really.  Good food is not expensive, but you do need to spend time on it if you want to feed your family properly.  This was considered a normal aspect of human existence that nobody thought twice about until twenty years ago or so, and now even healthy recipes with real ingredients in calendars and parenting magazines take pains to stress how “quick” and “easy” they are for “families on the go”.  I’m sorry to burst their marketing/good intentions bubble, but cooking dinner from scratch does not take 10-15 minutes no matter what they tell you.  It takes an hour.

This is why I cannot unequivocally support a fat tax.  Not only does junk food benefit from the perception that it is “cheaper” (it’s not, in the final analysis), it is faster, more convenient, and addictive.  Canada’s Food Guide, The Food Network, and common sense can’t convince people to eat like normal humans, and you think punishing them with a tax will?  I have a slogan for you: the lord helps those who help themselves.

If people have never cooked, don’t share meals, avoid actual food items in the supermarket and go straight for the snack shelves and freezers, and think a rotation of McDs, BK, Wendy’s, KFC and pizza is a balanced diet, they’re pretty much already screwed.  We can chalk up these behaviours to class, culture, upbringing, and a whole other host of “socioeconomic factors”, but the bottom line is there’s no evidence that introducing a fat tax would improve these people’s health or make them see the benefits of changing their habits or lifestyles (as in, they can’t f------ see them now?!)

Smoking has been public enemy number one for years.  As a result,  the amount of smokers in the general population have fallen from 49 to 17 percent over fifty years.  And yet those 17% are still going strong, despite rising prices, social stigma, and a universal societal consensus that it’s pretty much the dumbest decision you can make for your health.  Do we need a new battlefield against the obese to make them feel sub-human too now, aware as we are of the tenacious persistence of stupidity in the face of overwhelming evidence?

Obese people are already shamed into living marginalized, isolated existences. In the mid-sized Ontario city where I live, I see people driving through the McDonalds drive through in the morning (as I ride past on my bike) who look like they can barely fit between their seat and their steering wheel.  I’m not exaggerating.  You don’t see these people out on the street, in shops, at the park with their kids, at concerts or festivals or community activities.  Obesity is not a problem because it’s a hidden problem.  Out of sight, out of mind.

If such people are persons of prominence (which they rarely are), or have designs on becoming one, they know that the path to freedom from their onion-ring chains passes inevitably through potato chip and big-gulp free zones, with a forced ass-removal from the couch and a plunk into the chair of a personal trainer’s office.  People at the gym will look at them with nothing but respect for showing up and deciding to break the shadowy cowardice of their living rooms.  However, deciding to take this very important step, which thousands do every year, is a personal decision, whether the government is profiting off your misery or not.

You can’t stop people from stuffing themselves any more than you can stop them from procreating.  Which brings me to sight #2 in my town that made the source of the whole obesity epidemic abundantly clear to me.  It happened at the bus terminal – a young, overweight lady, no older than 22, who was smoking, texting, and obviously poor, was waiting for the bus with her daughter, no older than three.  She was sitting in a stroller, drinking a 600 ml of Coca-cola from a straw, being paid no attention by her mother.  The cycle of obesity, poverty, and ignorance on full display.  That’s what a toddler needs to get a head start on life, hundreds of empty calories and carcinogens.  And society is totally powerless to intervene in this situation.  This poor child, defenceless against this trashy-life conditioning, will be standing their like her mother with her own child some day.

Meanwhile across town, two six-figure earning, graduate degree holding forty-somethings wince and cross their fingers as they prepare to drop another fifteen grand on rolling the in-vitro dice.  Their granite-countertopped kitchen and stainless steel fridge are packed with organic dairy products, heritage grains and oodles of arugula.  There are, however, no kids around to eat any of it as Mr and Mrs type A spent all their childbearing years stacking big bucks.  Which are now coming in handy for these IVF treatments.  It's a fictional scenario, but no one can deny that IVF treatment is booming.

My point is, our incredibly advanced and evolved society has produced all kinds of post-modern conundrums and unintended consequences.  The last thing we need is punitive and nuance-lacking rules to produce more of both.  I happen to have ice cream, chips, and cookies at my house right now.  Since these things are all capable of sitting around for days and weeks past when they arrive, I don’t feel I should have to pay more for them.  If these treats were enjoyed in moderation, their purveyors' margins would be greatly squeezed, which would compromise their ability to spend billions on advertising.   That would free up our government' time spent on debating whether to ban "junk food advertising" to focus on more important things.  People who take care of themselves shouldn't be subject to a tax that is blind to their normal body mass index when they want some well-deserved dessert.  Who could forget the Simpson's episode when cantankerous old Monty Burns confided in Smithers how happy he was from the first taste of "iced cream" he experienced in his miserable old age?

A government that is planning on building a massive casino where Ontario Place used to be sure won't have a leg to stand on if it talks about introducing "sin" taxes on junk food.

1 comment:

  1. In other news, the UN special rapporteur on access to food gave Canada bad grades today for poor & aboriginal access to high quality, nutritious food. The immigration minister managed to tell him to piss up a rope and take a pot shot at the organization he represents in the same sound bite. Yet another phenomenon (malnourished Canadians) that is symptomatic of our overly complicated society and seemingly incongruous with a fat tax TR