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taxing junk food.

July 26, 2011

A friend asked for thoughts about the recent NYTimes column about taxing junk food. And ultimately, I’m pretty torn on the issue. I’m personally not a big fan of government taking significant steps to tell the public what to eat. It’s a similar feeling to when work would tell me to be healthier (when I’m already healthy). That being said – with the corn subsidies, etc, the government’s already pretty much controlling a lot of the food choices out there. Plus, the healthcare benefits overall could potentially be huge.

I think the key issue that this column addresses is that not only does the unhealthy food need to be taxed, but the healthy food needs to be subsidized. What ends up being difficult is that healthy food is relatively inconvenient. Let’s face it – I’ve got time and money and I still want to make instant ramen and Kraft macaroni and cheese because it’s fast and easy. I’m sure there are a lot of households where the parents don’t have the time (or want to go through the effort) to cook – not only dinner but healthy breakfast and lunches. But if you make the healthy staples cheaper – the effect you could see is in school lunches (it’s Jamie Oliver’s show that totally doesn’t work currently) and restaurant food.

But unhealthy food can quickly become a fuzzy area. Soda’s bad. Is diet soda better or worse? Is an artificial sweetener and zero calories better than high fructose corn syrup? What if the soda’s made with real sugar or honey? Is it worse than if I put three packets of sugar and cream into my coffee? Is the Big Mac really worse than the salad at McDonald’s? Should I really be buying organic? Someone’s going to be unhappy, so the government might as well just pick something and start there.

I do think that a lot of healthy preventative lifestyle changes are education though. And smoking is a perfect example. I grew up a generation that was shown every year in school pictures of lungs and teeth and cancer and people with tubes in their neck and number of deaths caused by smoking. That kind of imagery for a generation so concerned with how we look is priceless. But I never saw numbers for diabetes or cardiovascular disease. I’ve never been taught how to determine on my own if something is healthy (in a restaurant or a grocery store). I only recently learned how to eyeball the size of one serving of meat. From how successful Weight Watchers is, I’m not sure if people know how to count calories on their own. But I guess that all gets filed into life skills that don’t teach in school (like managing your finances and easy home repairs).

Side note – while writing this I was thinking about the corn subsidies. If you get rid of corn subsidies and it results in a decrease of corn based products (fast food, high fructose corn syrup, etc) since they’ll be more expensive, what impact does that have on the parts of the farms and areas that provide that corn? Wikipedia tells me less than 10% goes toward human food (not livestock).

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