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The state has no business in the refrigerators of the nation

By Troy Lanigan and David MacLean
web posted December 11, 2006

For too many politicians and bureaucrats most problems can be solved with a healthy serving of taxation and a side order of regulation. The latest? Taxing and regulating "bad foods" to tackle the obesity epidemic. Those very smart persons in government and academia conclude that if we taxed Big Macs and Eat More bars we'd all reduce our consumption of "bad foods" and fill the streets with Lance Armstrong look alikes. The concept is nothing new.

Cigarettes and alcohol have been deemed 'politically incorrect' for years. More recently gasoline was added to the list. Apparently, heating your home or driving your kids to school is a "SIN" so we tax it in the hope that consumption will be reduced. Is it working?

People continue to drink and smoke. And, horror of horrors, people continue to heat their homes in winter. It's true that the choices many people make are not healthy ones. And it's also true that they shoulder responsibility for those choices. But is arming the Nanny state with food police a good idea?

Imagine bureaucrats deciding which foods are "healthy" and which aren't. Would a high-carb potato be subject to the tax? What about the fatty but protein-rich steak? A new skyscraper would have to be constructed in Ottawa to manage the exemptions and inclusions, while lawyers would be required to defend those decisions against food producers who think their particular product should not be subject to the tax. Government could call it the indigestion tax!

Studies done in the United States indicate a link between socioeconomic status and obesity. Basically, the less education you have and the lower your income, the more likely you are to be obese. This tax proposal only exacerbates their plight. Making poor people poorer further limits their choices. It doesn't make them healthier.

Second, what does taxing food have to do with obesity at all? Just because someone eats a candy bar doesn't mean they're obese. The only point in imposing an obesity tax on a marathon runner who enjoys a Snickers bar once in a while is that it - pardon the pun - fattens government coffers. And that's the real agenda here.

There are two alternatives to taxing food. One rests in the demands of the market place. The fact is, even McDonald's consumers can order a salad and low-fat yogurt. Why? Because McDonald's understands sensible people on the go want alternatives to Big Macs or they will go somewhere else to eat. It's the same reason car manufacturers are beginning to produce hybrids on a mass scale and why many restaurants went smoke free long before the Nanny state arrived. The market responds to consumer demand.

Finally, if Canadians paid out of their own pocket for their own health care there would be a built-in incentive to choose healthier lifestyles. Buffet-style, one-premium-fits-all style health care insulates people from the consequences of their choices. Insurance premiums are based on the relative risk an individual poses. If someone smokes, is over weight and drinks excessively, his or her health premium will rightly be higher than for someone who exercises three times a week and doesn't smoke. Canadians face - and indeed welcome - these consequences every day when it comes to renewing their automobile and life insurance policies.

If policy makers want to tackle obesity then they should consider reforms to medicare premiums as an alternative to creating multi-billion dollar food police and bureaucracies that have more to do with stuffing government coffers than instilling personal responsibility in those who are genuinely at risk. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once quipped that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Well ... it has no business in the refrigerators of the nation either. ESR

Troy Lanigan and David MacLean work with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.


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