New ‘fat tax’ may mean well, but it will only make things worse

Photo: Robert Lawton CC (Wikimedia Commons)

While it’s encouraging to see that some government officials are taking people’s health seriously, lawmakers can oftentimes shoot themselves in the foot with misguided legislation.

Puerto Rico has recently proposed a new law that aims to tackle childhood obesity, an issue it has been struggling with for quite some time.

This United States territory reports a 30 per cent childhood obesity rate, one of the highest in the country. In order to combat this, the proposed law would charge education officials with identifying obese children and reporting them to Puerto Rico’s health department. Monthly checkups would be done, and if the parents were unable to get their child down to a healthy weight in time they would be fined.

At first glance, this new law seems like the right kind of “tough love” legislation that could help get a handle on a pervasive public health risk. This is especially appealing for a country like Canada, where childhood obesity hovers at around 31 per cent. In the past, provincial governments and nation-wide health organizations have even flirted with the idea of instituting a similarly punitive tax on junk food.

But while this kind of legislation undoubtedly means well, it has one fatal flaw: It fails to consider the correlation between obesity and poverty.

In developed nations like Canada and the United States, obesity is rapidly becoming a “disease of the poor.” After all, healthy food is more expensive than junk food, and it costs more to enrol a child in sports programs than to have them sit in front of the TV. A “fat tax” would only succeed in penalizing households who can’t afford the extra expense of paying a fine, further perpetuating the cycle of poverty that’s contributed to the obesity epidemic in the first place.

If any government really wants to help reduce obesity, there are much better solutions than a financially punitive “fat tax.” In fact, this health issue could be helped somewhat with the assistance of government subsidies.

For example, a subsidy on healthy foods would enable families that are otherwise unable to provide a balanced diet for themselves to improve their dietary situation. Subsidies for children’s exercise programs, like sports teams and other active after-school programs, would help families give their children something more to do than stare at a TV screen all evening. To tie it all together, special government initiatives aimed at educating children and their parents on healthy living could make sure these subsidies don’t go unused.

This is just one way of looking at the problem, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the obesity epidemic in counties like Canada and the United States. However, a “fat tax” doesn’t seem to be one of those solutions.

All things considered, this kind of legislation, while coming from a good place of genuine concern, has the potential to produce the opposite of the desired effect.