I’m forewarning you now. This post is a bit of rant against absurd “nanny” tactics by the state. About a month ago, I stumbled on this story about the UK government targeting middle class wine drinkers. Then yesterday, I came across a story about Oxford researchers proposing a “fat tax” on unhealthy food that they hypothesize will save lives. These efforts are not the first time the government has tried to change individual behavior, and it won’t be the last time either.
According to the National Health Service, their concerns about wine consumption are aimed at a specific group:
“We want to target older drinkers, those that are maybe drinking one or two bottles of wine at home each evening,” a Whitehall source said. “They do not realise the damage they are doing to their health and that they risk developing liver disease. We are not talking here about the traditional wino.”
However, old people hitting the sauce aren’t the only targets of a government campaign. It’s one angle of a three prong attack. They also plan to hit the 18–24 drinkers with a plea to better manage their drinking habits:
“There are growing numbers of people turning up in hospital with drink-related diseases and drink-related injuries. They are getting younger and more of them are turning up needing treatment,” the source added.
The ultimate goal (and I wish I could find a direct quote, because it’s startling) is that “ministers want drunkenness in public to be as socially unacceptable in ten years’ time as smoking or drink-driving is today.” Pause for a moment and ask yourself, “what defines drunkenness?” I’ll come back to that in a sec.
Now on to all those lives that can be saved with a fat tax. The premise? A tax of 17.5% on foods deemed “unhealthy…would cut consumer demand and reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes.” My favorite part? The justification for such a tax:
“A well-designed and carefully-targeted fat tax could be a useful tool for reducing the burden of food-related disease,” the study concluded.
The team from Oxford’s Department of Public Health said higher taxes have already been imposed on cigarettes and alcohol to encourage healthy living.
The study did acknowledge that such a tax might be seen as “an attack on personal freedom.” Few in positions of authority support the idea of a “fat tax,” but it continues to be brought up as a solution. Pause for a second moment and ask yourself, “what defines healthy?” Ok, now to address both pauses.
Drunk & Unhealthy
The first, a question of drunkenness, is intriguing to me. I know many people who act like drunken fools without a drop of alcohol in them. Would they be considered “socially unacceptable?” Second, a “healthy” person can eat at large quantity of “unhealthy” food and still be healthy. Underlying all of this nonsense is a basic question: why not just prohibit the production of these “unhealthy” foods and drinks? Hmmm, perhaps the general public won’t stand for it? That’s one possibility. The other is that even if you take away the “unhealthy” foods and drinks, you’ll still have unhealthy people.
One caveat I’d add is that the UK government has an invested interest in the health of its citizens. It’s paying for it. A healthier population means less pounds spent on health-related illness. In some ways, this interest is only an extension of government involvement with health care (no, this isn’t about one-payor health care versus private health care; that’s another post). If nothing else, these proposals are consistent with the premise of government intervention.
My aggravation arises from the idea that you can legislate or control behavior that doesn’t impact others. The previous examples of smoking and “drink-driving” are two cases where other lives can be directly impacted. It’s a difficult argument to make that drinking in the privacy of one’s home or stuffing one’s self full of chips, ice cream, and other delightfully unhealthy food impact anyone other than the individual.
The smoking argument took off because people not engaged in the activity experienced a clear impact on their health when others did engage around them. “Drink-driving” became the poster child of bad social behavior because it’s very randomness horrified people. People could visualize the consequences, and many felt its impact firsthand. It’s a tangible danger.
Pitfalls of Legislating Behavior
Humans are funny creatures. They show a startling tendency to do the exact opposite of what they “should” do. I’m not sure legislation or taxes can control the tendency either. If money were an issue, poor people wouldn’t drink because they’d use the money for other necessities. But regardless of wealth, people find a way to drink. Same goes for people choosing to eat “unhealthy” food. Say you make junk fund as expensive as healthy food, doesn’t change the fact that some people just flat out prefer the junk food and will choose it over the other.
As with most tax-based initiatives, the claim that those tax dollars will be used to help prevent future “bad” things rarely comes to pass. Consider the tobacco litigation in U.S. during the 90s. Proponents claimed the money won from tobacco companies would help educate others about the dangers of smoking. Here’s how the money was allocated according to the GAO report:
The Master Settlement Agreement imposed no restrictions on how states could spend their payments, and as such, the states have chosen to allocate them to a wide variety of activities. Some states told us that they viewed the settlement payments as an opportunity to fund needs that they were not able to fund previously due to the high costs of health care. States allocated the largest portion of their payments to health care—$16.8 billion or 30 percent—which includes Medicaid, health insurance, hospitals, medical technology, and research. States allocated the second largest portion to cover budget shortfalls—about $12.8 billion or about 22.9 percent. This category includes allocations to balance state budgets or reduce deficits that resulted from lower than anticipated revenues, increased mandatory spending, or essential expenditures. Included among the next largest categories are allocations for infrastructure projects, education, debt service on securitized proceeds, and tobacco control. (link)
Education about the dangers of smoking doesn’t exactly pop out, does it? If you get a chance, read the full report. It makes for interesting reading and gives you an idea of how a “fat tax” might be used to help cover budget shortfalls. Before anyone jumps on me for taking the side of tobacco companies, let me set the record straight. They lied, repeatedly, about the harmful effects of their product. But I’m not sure you really address the issue by taking money from their coffers and funneling it into state coffers.
Finding Real Solutions, or At Least Decent Alternatives
For starters, insist on some individual responsibility. Maybe you remember the lawsuit back in 2003 against McDonald’s, blaming them for making some girls fat. Call me crazy, but I’ve never seen anything that would recommend a regular diet of hamburgers and French fries. I’m not implying that McDonald’s isn’t a part of issue, only that no one makes you walk in the door and buy a burger.
And, if you’re going to legislate behavior, why not do something that might have an impact. Make bike paths, walking trails, and green space a requirement in any community development project. Give people the opportunity to be active. Then, get rid of education initiatives that result in cutting PE so kids can spend more time in class memorizing to pass a test that doesn’t really tell you anything.
I’m the first to admit these examples are only small steps. But before the government attempts to take over any other lifestyle decisions of mine, I’d hope they’d spend more time and energy on weightier manners, no pun intended. I think it’s safe to say that addressing immigration, for example, is a bigger concern than taxing my Big Gulp. Just a thought.