The Fat Tax

For Tastykake, Coca-Cola, and all the other pushers of stuff too tasty to put down, the future is looking darker than a Ho-Ho. Junk food is about to become the new tobacco.

It's not just that one of the biggest anti-smoking litigators has set his sights on dragging Ronald McDonald and all his fast-food cohorts into court. Nor is it the new studies that confirm obesity's role in an ever-expanding circle of medical conditions, including cancer and birth defects.

No, the big headache looming for the fun-food folks is that government is adding up the medical costs, and those numbers are surging right along with our waistlines. The nation's estimated annual health-care outlay for obesity-related illness now stands at $93 billion. The states pick up a piece of this bill through Medicaid, and since these are lean times for state coffers and fat times for the American public, the equation has grown irresistible: Government should start taxing fat.

With voter participation in dire need of a boost, we could mandate that every adult appear at the polls on the first Tuesday in November for the Great American Weigh-In. All those lonely polling officials with less and less to keep them busy each year will stay very busy indeed as they measure what is, let's face it, our Grossest National Product. Height and weight would be logged, body mass index calculated, and tax liability assessed accordingly.

If you are among the multitudes addicted to Butterscotch Krimpets and 7-Eleven Slurpees, you might feel less guilty once you're compensating society for all the medical attention you're bound to need. (At last you'll be pulling your own weight!) For those who require a further incentive to drop some pounds, fitness mania would seize the nation each fall. Right after stuffing themselves to near-comas at Labor Day barbecues, citizens would go on a 60-day workout-and-starve regimen, uniting our nation in the twin causes of better health and cheating Uncle Sam out of every last possible ounce of fat tax.

Beyond the inevitable carping by civil libertarians and other protectors of our privacy, the biggest obstacle to taxing people's weight is that it might work too well. The tax base would melt off with the poundage, and no successful taxation policy is ever designed to ensure its own extinction. That's why we tax cigarettes, not smokers. Fewer people are smoking today, but we don't really want them all to stop — we just want our cut of every pack of cancer sticks they buy.

A direct state or federal tax on junk food — a sugar tax, a fructose tax — would work the same way. If the tax made Classic Coke more expensive than Diet Coke, some drinkers would switch to sugar-free, some would cut down their consumption, but mostly it would raise tons of cash. Americans spend around $63 billion on soda alone each year. A 20 percent cut of that action would help foot the bill for national health care, although famously fat cities like Philadelphia should get to keep a piece of the pie (so to speak), considering the disproportionate take from our many fatties.

Getting from here to there will be a challenge, since the federal government currently provides huge subsidies to the bounty of carbohydrates that fatten our asses as surely as they fatten the food industry's bottom line. Sugar, corn syrup, and those amber waves of grain all benefit from government largesse in countless ways, and the food industry knows well the language of power in Washington, D.C. For instance, when WHO, the World Health Organization, suggested recently that sugar be limited to 10 percent of the daily caloric intake of healthy individuals, the Beltway sugar lobby threatened to get Congress to slash WHO's $406 million appropriation. The head of WHO, a man who regularly wrestles with real controversies related to AIDS, SARS and other deadly diseases, complained that he had never before been subjected to “such strong and misdirected language.”

That extreme reaction from the sugar lobby might be seen as a sign that junk food is far too politically entrenched to be taxed. “Fat chance,” some might say. But I take comfort in the old philosophical observation that every great idea goes through three phases: First it suffers ridicule, then it endures vicious opposition, then it enjoys acceptance as self-evident truth. Nearly two out of three American adults are overweight, as are one in six American children. Nobody's laughing at this problem anymore. When the fast-food industry and the sugar lobby lash out with fighting words, they are starting down the same road of angry denial that the tobacco lobby did 30 years ago, and that road ended with massive payouts to the states and sky-high cigarette taxes.

There might well be some inevitable natural progression at work here when it comes to how an advanced society raises funds for the common good. The cash-poor colonial governments taxed land. When the cash economy grew, we taxed income. As affluence spread, we taxed sales. And now, with our civilization achieving truly decadent levels of affluence, we tax sin — smoking, drinking and gambling. Unless Rick Santorum finds a way to tax sodomy, the sin of gluttony is the tax man's final frontier.