The Fat Tax

By Hanna Rosin
Copyright 1998 The New Republic
May 18, 1998

Is it really such a crazy idea?

You knew tobacco heavies were getting desperate when they seized on this forgettable quotation, spoken by a Yale professor to the second-string paper in Boston: "To me, there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel." Within a week, the quote has found its way into high-decibel opinion columns across the country, and it eventually screeched its way into a prophetic Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Who's Next?" "First, public health groups will determine that hamburgers cause cancer and heart disease," the editorialists warned. "The trial lawyers will begin class actions on behalf of adults who blame their illness on ... special sauce." Before we know it, poor Ronald McDonald will be doing time for peddling poison to kids, and the rest of us will be reduced to cutting out contraband photos of smoking starlets with those neon-orange safety scissors they hand out in kindergarten.

The Wall Street Journal's reasoning is built on the same assumption as all slippery slope arguments: The human mind is like the canine mind; once legislators get a taste of blood, they won't know where to stop. But the Journal is out of luck. The Yale professor, Dr. Kelly Brownell, is not leading a mass movement on the streets of New Haven and has no plans to do so. As director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, Brownell spends his days devising sensible, individually tailored diets for patients who are either wasting away or growing dangerously obese from various food-related obsessions.

True, he's writing a book about how to fix what he calls our "toxic food environment," the publication of which is likely to prompt another alarmist editorial in The Wall Street Journal. But, though Brownell has been talking about his ideas for over a decade, so far he's found little enthusiasm for them in the academic community--let alone the wider world. (The normally alarmist Center for Science in the Public Interest calls Brownell's suggestions "pretty extreme.") Most of his data come from only a handful of studies done by the University of Minnesota researchers. And, even on the slowest news day, three professors do not constitute an alarming trend.

It's too bad Brownell isn't more popular. If you accept that America is entering a Puritan phase, then regulating fat can actually be a less intrusive policy than regulating tobacco. Eating habits are more flexible than smoking habits. While people can become addicted to nicotine, they can't become addicted to fat (not medically speaking, at least). By that logic, even small incentives to change behavior, such as increasing prices, can have a noticeable effect.

Brownell's reasoning starts with the premise that the number of diet-related deaths is in the same ballpark as the number of tobacco-related deaths: 300,000 a year and climbing for food, compared with 500,000 a year and dropping for smoke. About one-third of the U.S. population is 20 percent or more overweight and is therefore at risk of suffering high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular diseases. Fat advocates dispute these numbers and will likely argue that Brownell (and I) are shills for the diet industry, but several reputable organizations have independently confirmed the dangers of obesity, including the Centers for Disease Control and the Harvard School of Public Health.

To date, all theories on how to control the epidemic of obesity have failed in practice or even backfired. The scientific pendulum has swung from blaming evil outside forces, to blaming individuals, and back to evil forces again--that is, from blaming Freudian oral fixations, to blaming overindulgent appetites, to blaming bad genes. Brownell wants to stop it somewhere in the middle, to hold people responsible for their own weight loss but help them out a bit. How can anyone lose weight, he argues, when temptation is everywhere, when three new McDonald's restaurants open up every day, when at any hour of the day or night you can treat yourself to a Value Meal from the shame-free anonymity of the drive-thru? "It is tragic," says Brownell, speaking on a cell phone that picks up the clop-clop of the vigorous, fat-melting Yale tennis match he is watching, "that any American child you stop on the street will recognize `super-size' as a verb."

To nudge people away from the drive-thru, Brownell advocates The Wall Street Journal's worst nightmare: a fat tax, where foods with high fat content are taxed at a higher rate. In an ideal world, Brownell would have the government subsidize fruits and vegetables and tax foods with more than a certain number of grams of fat. Carrots should be dirt cheap, he says, but you should have to think twice before buying carrot cake.

Most people consider the fat tax a far-fetched idea. Measuring fat content is not always practical. Hamburger meat has a certain percentage of fat, but most of it would melt away during grilling. And what about sugary no-fat snacks such as soda and candy? Besides, a version of the fat tax has already been tried--and it failed. Over the last decade, California, Maryland, and Maine instituted snack taxes levied mostly on junk food such as candy bars, potato chips, and soda. The Snack Food Association eventually killed the tax in all but one state.

Short of the tax, though, other experiments with pricing incentives have had a dramatic effect on eating habits. One of the Minnesota researchers, Dr. Robert Jeffery, went to a grocery store to monitor whether customers paid attention to nutrition education posters. After a few days, he realized they noticed the signs, but not nearly as much as they noticed sales. A huge neon cholesterol warning in the dairy section would be totally ignored if eggs were selling at half price that week.

His revelation led to the vending machine experiment. Dr. Jeffery, Dr. Simone French, and some other researchers picked a vending machine at a university and reduced the prices of all products containing less than three grams of fat--pretzels, baked potato chips, Snackwell's foods, rice cakes, animal crackers, granola bars, fat-free fudge--by 50 percent. In three weeks, the percentage of low-fat snacks purchased increased by 80 percent, from 25 percent of total purchases to about 46 percent. Customers purchased many more low-fat snacks, while the sales of fatty snacks decreased modestly.

The researchers then took their experiment to the nutritionist's favorite experimental milieu: high school cafeterias. They picked two high schools--one mostly white, suburban, and middle-class, the other inner-city and ethnically diverse--and discounted salads, bags of carrots, and fruits by 50 percent. After three weeks, nobody bought more salads, but sales of carrots doubled in the suburban school, and sales of fruit quadrupled in the urban school. Total food sales and total number of customers did not change significantly, so the same people must have been substituting healthier foods for their usual choices. (Dr. French is now doing a twelve-month study to determine how low the price has to go before people will substitute a low-fat snack for a Snickers.)

What can we do with these results? They prove, at least, that some form of food tax isn't as regressive as a tobacco tax. True, people with low incomes spend more of their income on food and buy more junk food. But calling the tax regressive assumes it doesn't work. They may have a hard time giving up cigarettes, but it seems relatively easy to convince poor consumers to replace a cookie with an apple.

Of course, nutritionists are fighting an uphill battle. High school cafeterias aren't what they used to be. Most are now mini-malls, where Papa John's pizza and Taco Bell burritos compete for shelf space and the school takes the profit. Still, the federal government now partially reimburses schools for the meals they provide, so it can skew that refund to subsidize healthier meals more generously. Nutritionists can also urge schools to forgo some of the profits on lower-fat foods in either the vending machine or the cafeteria and to charge more for high-fat foods to make up the difference. Kids will still gravitate to Papa John's, but they may at least add in an apple a day.

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