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Nanny State Disapproval: Manipulating Your Diet through Taxation

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Twenty-six states intrude on our nutritional decisions by taxing soda at a higher rate than other groceries, and seventeen states do the same for candy. As if that were not bad enough in the land of the free, legislators continue to push for new and heftier taxes in this realm, with new soda taxes pending in fourteen states.

A new report from the Tax Foundation, Overreaching on Obesity, (PDF) has compiled data on the status and consequences of state-led taxes on sweets. In doing so, it lays waste to both the moral and economic arguments of these overbearing sin taxes.

Tax proponents claim to be addressing an epidemic of obesity, which increased from 13 percent to 34 percent of the population between 1962 and 2008. But that argument falls flat, because the purported epidemic is nothing of the sort.

As highlighted in the comedic documentary Fat Head (2009) over the last five decades, the U.S. population has aged markedly with the median age going from 29.5 years in 1960 to 37.2 years in 2010 and as people age, they tend to gain weight.

An older population, while it may tend to be heavier, does not translate into a less healthy one. In fact, overweight people, according to the Center for Disease Controls Body Mass Index classifications, actually have longer lifespans than those classified as normal.

The BMI formula for obesity, which considers only height and weight rather than body-fat percentage, is also embarrassingly inaccurate. As Scott Drenkard of the Tax Foundation notes, the CDC’s BMI classification describes athletes such as Tom Brady as overweight, and actors such as Dwayne The Rock Johnson as obese.

In Fat Politics, Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago notes that the CDC is eager for funding, and weight-loss industry leaders, seeking grants and customers, also have a perverse incentive to promote a fallacious trend of epidemic proportions.

Furthermore, impositions that seek to change peoples diets imply ignorance on the part of consumers and exploitation by retailers.

But even if we accept the obesity claims at face value for the sake of argument, an attack on obesity is not a legitimate role of government at least if we are to retain any respect for individual liberty.

Sin-tax proponents seek to justify their demands with the allegation that obese people swell our hospitals and cause Medicaid and Medicare costs to skyrocket. Shouldn’t they be made to pay for the burden they generate? There are so many problems with this frequently repeated logic that one hardly knows where to start. First, obese or overweight people do not generate medical costs for others. Elected officials impose socialized medicine on a population, and that collectivizes costs and places a moral hazard on unhealthy behavior. One wrong, the imposition of socialized medicine, does not justify another wrong, further violations of our liberty.

Then, when elected officials do intervene with taxes to recoup the costs of socialized medicine, they do so haphazardly and with counterproductive results. (The latest health-care reform also impedes the ability of insurers to use price differentiation.)

Although such taxes may generate revenue, they are fraught with definitional problems. In Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas, for example, sweetened beverages with anything less than 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice are subject to the soda tax. On the other hand, Colorado and New Jersey do not classify chocolate bars as candy if they contain flour, so Kit Kat and Twix are exempt.

Regardless of definition, though, experience suggests that people either continue to buy as before or substitute with alternatives that may be even more calorie dense. All the while, the taxes disproportionately burden the poor, because they spend a greater proportion of their income on groceries. These taxes also punish healthy people who happen to consume candy or soda in small amounts.

Insofar as some people may suffer from poor health, it is a matter of personal responsibility. And if you don’t like your tax money going to people whom you believe have been irresponsible, oppose the spending itself; don’t try to control their lives.

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    Fergus Hodgson is host, editor, and founder of The Stateless Man radio show and e-newsletter and a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation.