FoodPolitik: A fat tax for an obese bureaucracy

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Many folks are put-off by New York City’s constant meddling in the food choices of its citizens, whether it is scolding them about salt or grossing them out by graphically comparing sports drinks to liquid fat. But hey, we can live somewhere else and eat in peace, right?

That may not be true for much longer: The global food police are preparing to act.

Last month, Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at a United Nations meeting on non-communicable diseases. And a large focus of his speech was — you guessed it — encouraging governments around the world to enact strict, NYC-style regulations on food. “Government’s highest duty,” Bloomberg said, is to make healthy foods the “default” option.

Already, other nations are taking Bloomberg-esque steps.

On October 1, Denmark instituted a tax on foods containing saturated fat — the first of its kind. This is on top of a tax the Nordic country slapped last year on “junk” food, like ice cream and chocolate. The leftwing coalition that runs Denmark has even talked about doubling the tax.

Hungary also recently levied taxes on packaged foods high in sugar, salt, or carbs. (I’m sure you can make some puns for that example.) And France will impose a tax on soft drinks.

In response to the Denmark nutrient tax, you’d think the conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron would mock big-government attempts at dietary controls. Instead, he refused to rule it out, saying such a tax “is something that we should look at.”

Let’s draw the line here: You can’t tax people into health. In fact, the new Denmark tax could be counterproductive.

The Danes reportedly hoarded pizza, butter, meat, and milk before the tax took effect. And with a freezer full of DiGiorno, what are they going to eat more of?

And in the long term, there are a number of foods containing saturated fat that are associated with better health. One is dark chocolate (linked to heart health); a second is eggs (a good source of nutrients, according to Harvard); a third is Atlantic salmon (omega-3s are linked to heart and cognitive health). Taxing these foods could drive down these health benefits.

More to the point, nutrient taxes fail to consider overall good nutrition. According to the American Dietetic Association, there are no “good” or “bad” foods. Just good or bad lifestyles.

Further, it’s ludicrous for the government to set dietary policy with the tax code when our understanding of diet and nutrition is always changing.

Not too long ago butter was “bad” and margarine was “good” because trans fat was better than saturated fat. Then margarine became marginalized because it contains trans fat. People fretted about cholesterol in eggs; now eggs are considered a great health food. And remember the government’s low-fat campaign to improve our diets? Obesity rates ballooned after that. It seems that some people see the “lower fat” as permission to eat more.

The food-cop fear-mongering about saturated fat could also turn out to be a wash. The so-called conventional wisdom is already coming under fire from the likes of science investigator Gary Taubes and other respected researchers.

Nevertheless, the food police take an overly simplistic shoot-first, ask-scientific-questions-later approach. And lest you think these bone-headed policies will stay in the Old World, Bloomberg and his figurative comrades-in-arms are working to spread them across the globe. The challenges of getting people to eat healthy, Bloomberg told the UN, are “too vast and complex for individual governments to overcome alone.”

But how exactly can public health activists make healthy food the “default” option, as Bloomberg put it?

Imagine you’re sitting in your office wondering what you’ll grab for lunch. If you’re in a city, there are literally dozens of places you could go. How do the food police expect, in a free market, to make the “default” choice the healthy one?

Will they shut down pretzel carts? Will every restaurant have to offer one salad cheaper than everything else on the menu? Or perhaps there will be a “calorie tax” on all food, so the more you eat, the more you pay Uncle Sam. That’s along with a tax based on the food’s saturated fat, sugar, and sodium content.

Of course, some people can eat more than others based on their body size, so diners will have to be weighed to make sure their tax is proportional. (Take a number, and step up to the scale.)

Starting to get the picture?

The last thing we need is even more bureaucracy such as the UN and the World Health Organization assuming they have the moral authority to manage what we eat. When these international organizations get involved in “non-communicable” diseases, what it really means is that unelected, unaccountable activists in Switzerland will be attacking choices across the world.