Last updated on August 30th, 2011
Because thou art vegan-leaning, shall there be no bacon cheeseburgers?
Taxing other people’s vices always seems like a win-win. It allows the majority to feel holier-than-thou and adds money to the public coffers.
For instance, I’ve favored the enormous taxes placed on tobacco. As you can probably guess, I’m not a smoker. I have no vested interests that keep me from seeing the logic of the standard public health argument.
Smoking is implicated in widespread health problems that cost society billions. If a high tax discourages even a handful of people from smoking, it will save lives and public funds.
In a similar way, I initially supported proposals to tax sugary beverages. (Interventions to Reduce Sugar Consumption — Dr. Robert Lustig.)
Now, I’m not sure.
As with tobacco, sugar is implicated in widespread health problems that cost society billions. If a tax would reduce consumption of sugar (and other caloric sweeteners), saving lives and public funds, it seems worth a try, just like the tobacco tax.
Of course, sugar isn’t just like tobacco. There’s no second-hand exposure to sugar. More people use, and abuse, sugar and its equivalents than ever used tobacco. Sugar is woven more deeply into our culture, and has a more wholesome image in the popular mind, than tobacco. Some level of sugar use may be safe. So, at least in the United States, any public health war on sugar is apt to be long and nasty.
In a democracy, it’s easier to attack the bad habits of a minority than of the majority.
Still, I believe in the power of education; eventually, the public will come around to the view that sugar is just plain bad. Evil, even. Then, look out, you soda drinkers! You’re gonna pay!
Maybe if you pay enough, we’ll let you indulge your sickening sugar habit. But you’ll have to drink your soda pop over there, behind the bushes, with those perverts smoking ten-dollar cigarettes.
If you think I’m exaggerating the attitude of the moral crusader, check out Mark Bittman’s opinion piece, Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables in The New York Times Sunday Review. Bittman is all for taxing foods that he deems “bad.” He seems certain that bad foods can be easily identified. All we need to do is consult the experts. Who would the experts be? Easy. They’re the people who “increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods. . . .”
And the experts are also the people among whom “there’s little disagreement that changing [the American diet] could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.”
Right, those people. The ones who know what’s right for themselves, and for everyone else. The ones who are certain.
In addition to saving lives, Bittman claims that “a sane diet” could save “billions of dollars in health care costs.” It’s the same public health argument used against tobacco. Notice, though, Bittman’s choice of adjective to describe the diet he prefers: “sane.”
His writing drips with moral certainty. He knows. His experts know. The opposition is insane.
I admit that some of his ideas sound good to me. Sure, lets put an excise tax on sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and all things “junk food” (if we can agree on a definition) and subsidize seasonal green vegetables and fruit. What could it hurt?
The problem is, Bittman doesn’t stop with taxing the stuff I don’t use and subsidizing the stuff I love. If he did, I’d still find his tone irritating, but tolerable. Self-interest could seduce me into agreement.
Instead, he tromps on my toes, hard: “We eat nearly 10 percent more animal products than we did a generation or two ago, and though there may be value in eating at least some animal products, we could perhaps live with reduced consumption of triple bacon cheeseburgers.”
I’m not a huge fan of triple bacon cheeseburgers, even without the fattening bun. In fact, I’ve never eaten a triple burger of any kind. But I don’t want crusaders like Mr. Bittman or some new Federal Bureau of Health determining which and how many “animal products” I’ll be allowed to have.
The 10% increase in the consumption of animal products that Bittman cites pales against the 35% increase in the consumption of grain products since the 1970s. And the statistic fails to convey the strong shift away from pork and beef and toward poultry and fish. (See my earlier post Why we snack.)
Animal products — meat, cheese, eggs — are a lot healthier for many of us than the grains and legumes that Bittman pushes. A strong, research-based argument can be made on behalf of the health benefits of diets rich in meat, cheese and eggs. Yes, and for saturated fat, too. Where a healthy diet is concerned, animal products are categorically different than refined sugar.
Not surprisingly, Bittman appears to be a fan of Denmark’s saturated-fat tax that goes into effect this October.
Fat-phobia and conventional diet wisdom strike again!
Given the political grid-lock in Washington, D.C., I don’t see new food taxes or government agencies on the horizon.
That’s good. Because when government starts messing with our diets, bad things happen.
RIchard Feinman says
My blog post questions just how good Lustig’s science is. Actually, I also answer: pretty bad. That he thinks he is now in a position to advocate policy is truly amazing. http://rdfeinman.wordpress.com