The Fat Fight, circa 2009

August 06, 2009

If healthy eating, exercise, and overall wellness messages are omnipresent in today’s society, why then are American’s waistlines continuing to expand?

If healthy eating, exercise, and overall wellness messages are omnipresent in today’s society, why then are American’s waistlines continuing to expand?  The availability of information regarding healthy food choices is extensive, and the same can be said about how certain choices affect our health; but still, as reported by the Trust for America’s Health, in their July 2009 “F as in Fat” report, obesity has increased in 23 States and has not declined in a single state. Obviously the messages just aren’t enough!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even classified our society as ‘obesogenic’; a term used to describe environments that promote an increased food intake, unhealthy foods, and a sedentary lifestyle. The CDC has also reported that changes in policy and the general food environment that actually make healthy nutrition and physical activity choices available, affordable, and easy, will likely prove most effective in combating obesity. 

The recent study by the Urban Institute, proposes a federal tax on ‘more fattening’ foods.  “Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies From the Tobacco Wars,” evaluates the current evidence regarding the obesity epidemic and likens it to the fight against Big Tobacco.  The study discusses various obesity related statistics and facts, including the shocking fact that for the first time since the civil war, Americans may see a decline in average life expectancy. 

We know that over one in three adults and one in six children are obese, and it’s not news that obesity is associated with over 20 different diseases costing the United States over $147 billion per year. It is also estimated that each obese employee costs their employer the equivalent of 20 lost days at work. ‘Presenteeism’ is a word that has been created to describe lower work productivity due to both absenteeism and health-related limitations. And this is not just bottom line business mentality; we are talking real people with real health problems resulting in a significant reduction in quality of life. 

The Urban Institute proposes that in order to change these statistics, improve quality of life, and break America’s ‘obesogenic’ classification, a tax on certain foods is necessary. Foods considered to be more fattening and less healthy based on the Ranyer model, a food rating system used by the British Government, would be taxed a modest 10%; modest as compared with other organizations like the World Health Organization, who proposed a tax of 66-75%, or the USDA’s estimate of a 10-30% tax. (Both feel significant taxation is needed to cause measurable behavioral change)  Based on the average American’s intake, 33% (also a modest estimate) of the foods we eat are considered “more fattening” and thus would be taxed.

Based on these modest estimates, the tax would generate over $500 billion in 10 years, and if tax subsidies were included, the revenue is estimated to exceed $356 billion over 10 years.

The Urban Institute also suggests other possible policy interventions (similar to anti-tobacco campaign):

•    Limit advertising and marketing - Food industry currently spends approximately 30 billion per year on advertisements. Children and youth view on average 16 food and beverage commercials DAILY!  (50 countries currently regulate TV food advertising to children based on the Rayner model or similar models.
•    Clear and simple labeling, not only on food labels but in restaurants as well.
•    Taxation with compensation - Yes tax is a problem for the poor as they pay more tax relative to their income – The Urban Institute suggests that taxation without some other form of compensation would not work. Suggestions include: a portion of the revenue should be used to subsidize food stamps, provide grants to manufacturers to formulate healthier and cheaper foods and provide tax incentives for low income stores offering healthier foods and also subsidize health care costs for the poor.

So will taxing ‘more fattening’ foods become the next piece of weaponry in the obesity arsenal? We certainly hope not. It is not about taxing – this strategy has not worked on alcohol, tobacco or gas – what makes us think it will on “fat”? What we need is a sit-down – the major manufacturers, leading health professional and retailers; with one objective in mind and that is to make healthy, tasty foods more affordable and available.