The French Senate passed a "Nutella tax" yesterday- a measure that would triple the tax on palm and some other vegetable oils in the hope of cutting down on obesity (and napalm use during unemployment riots). The lower house of parliament still has to vote on it. Last year, Denmark passed a similar "fat tax" on all food items containing more than 2.3% saturated fat. Earlier this week, Danish lawmakers put an end to the tax after finding its negative effect on the economy and the strain it has put on small businesses far outweigh the health benefits. [Freakonomics] Switzerland, Germany, and the U.K. have all upheld a similar tax. And of course, we've all heard about New York City's recent ban on sodas over 16 ounces, and Washington, DC’s attempt to follow in NYC’s footsteps like it always does.
Each of these measures alleges its intention is to cut down on obesity and encourage consumers and manufacturers to seek healthier alternatives. I can't decide if this is insincere or ignorant, but odds are it will only accomplish making fat people poorer. So is the ulterior motive to collect tax revenue? Or are the supporters of this initiative naïve enough to believe it will accomplish its professed goals?
French people will still eat Nutella. The Italian company Ferrero will still make Nutella and probably won’t alter the recipe just to reduce taxes paid by French consumers. Sure, it may cost a little more. Maybe some people stop buying it.
But they don't stop buying it because they're worried about their health; they stop buying it because they can't afford it, or can't justify the added expensive. Making it more expensive to be obese doesn’t stop people from being or becoming obese. It makes them get obese on cheaper, less healthy junk. Just like making it more expensive to purchase alcohol doesn’t keep people from drinking alcohol, it just makes them turn to Boone’s Farm and Thunderbird.
Maybe alcohol seems like an inappropriate comparator. I think evidence suggests otherwise. Today the CDC released the findings of a study that say the average American adult gets 6% of his or her daily calories from soda and other sweetened drinks, and 5% from alcohol. I also think fatty foods and alcohol have something in common: the problem with consumption. The problem isn’t consumption; it’s consumption in excess. You can always find some health nut or junk food freak to tell you about the “good kind” of fat or cholesterol. And any of your thirstier friends will tell you that there are heart and health benefits to a glass of red wine (or five). But no one seems to be suggesting further limitations on alcohol.
In fact, if alcohol is any indicator of the potential success of these kinds of measures, it doesn’t look like their intentions will be realized. Most states already have a sin tax in place on alcohol, although the reasoning isn’t because they’re worried about consumers’ health, and it doesn’t stop people from drinking. Not even from drinking in excess. Liquor companies get 80% of their revenues from heavy consumers. (Heavy in amount consumed, not personal weight, though the two are correlated.)
We’ve also tried banning alcohol as a nation. You may remember how well that went. It was bad enough to inspire a hit HBO series. Will NYC soon see the development of underground soda shops offering you soft drinks in whatever quantity your heart desires? Probably not, though there are smoke-easies for cigarette smokers. Will NYC soon see a new cause for disgruntled food service employees, tired of having to refill your damn Coke for the fourth time because you can’t get a bigger size? More likely, and we know what stress does to your immune system, though maybe that’s offset by all the extra walking.
Yes, obesity is a real issue and a growing problem. So is alcoholism, which is exponentially higher among lawyers compared to the general population. But treating the symptoms won’t solve the problem. Making it more expensive is unlikely to effectuate change in those statuses- even the homeless beg for a drink. If the real intention of this kind of measure is to reduce obesity, then lawmakers need to find something that makes not being obese enough of an incentive that people will make the change on their own. You can make Nutella more expensive, but you can’t make people put down the spoon.