Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New York's fat tax is way for states, communities to help balance budgets in tough economy

When I was a political columnist for The Tennessean, which seems to be a phrase I use much too often in my posts, I won first place for humorous commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists (Southeastern states) for a column about Tennessee's need to enact a "fat tax" to balance its budget.

I used myself as an example, pointing out that I was carrying the equivalent of a five-year-old child underneath my chin and down to my feet. Interstate highway weigh stations for trucks could be used for people, with a tax beginning at 20 pounds overweight and working its way up to jumbo size and the cost of small home mortgage.

The same reason is embraced with cigarette or sin taxes. We hope the levy will discourage damaging activity of nicotine or alcohol. The fat tax would work the same.

Well, lo and behold, New York State is proposing my idea, this time on sugared sodas. The reasoning is that discouraging soda use will help reduce obesity, particularly among children. And of course, government gets another foothold into our lives and habits with this new revenue source.

Here is how The Daily News describes the controversy:

State Health Commissioner Richard Daines has become the point man for one of the more controversial of Gov. David Paterson's revenue-generating budget proposals: The so-called "fat tax" - an 18 percent levy on sugary drinks like non-diet soda.

Daines, a Spitzer administration holdover who generally keeps a fairly low profile, has recorded a YouTube manifesto in defense of the tax, which the administration insists is really more about health care policy than making money off soda-drinking New Yorkers.

The point, according to Daines, is to disincentivize sugary drinks, which research shows are the top culprit in the childhood obesity epidemic, and encourage people to return to 1970s-era levels of consumption of other, less fattening beverages like milk and water.

The side benefits, according to Daines, include the fact that cutting down on soda saves money for consumers and whittling the state's collective waistline could save money for taxpayers in the form of fewer obesity-related health problems that need to be treated - particularly for Medicaid recipients.

I like the fat tax since I now weigh more than 80 pounds less than when I wrote the fat tax column. That's because of the fabulous yet dangerous chemo diet, which I've been on for more than three years because of leukemia.

Obesity is a growing problem across this nation. Buffets and the still low prices for food encourage over indulging. Lifestyle choices by children to sit on the sofa after school instead of going outside to exercise has made obesity an epidemic and even diabetes more common.

The problem with such taxes is that they're not applied to the resulting health problems that government budgets must pay for. Instead, all the revenue is dumped in the general fund, paying for pork barrel projects that help only a few at the expense of the many. The size of government simply grows, instead of growing more effective.

Take for instance in Tennessee. The state, along with all the others in the Union, receives a big check of more than $150 million each year from a gigantic tobacco industry settlement. The money should go to the state's Medicaid program, TennCare, and the resulting health problems it must cover for program recipients. Instead, the settlement money goes into the general fund, to be spent on nothing associated with the ills of smoking.

Can lawamkers be trusted in New York and elsewhere to use fat tax revenue correctly. No. Obviously. Will people still spend on sugared sodas. Of course.

Still, any kind of deterrent to obesity is a plus in our society. I'd put locks on Big Macs if possible, until a person weighs themselves at the front counter. If he or she is more than 20 pounds overweight, then they have to pay a fee for the key to the lock.

That may sound ridiculous. But it is even more insane for America to eat itself out of health simply because it can. Tax, baby, tax.

No comments: