Friday, July 31, 2009

Taxes on Junk Food: Fat Chance?

The US Congress is currently considering whether or not to begin levying new taxes on junk food. In one proposal, we presumably would use taxes on soft drinks to finance the expansion of health care. The Economist this week ponders the intended and potential unintended consequences:

ECONOMISTS have long recognised the arguments for imposing special taxes on goods and services whose prices do not reflect the true social cost of their consumption. Such taxes are known as “Pigouvian” after Arthur Pigou, a 20th-century English economist. Environmental taxes are an obvious example. There is also a Pigouvian case for duties on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling. Smoking increases the risk of cancer for those in the vicinity of the smoker; alcohol abuse and gambling are strongly associated with violence and family breakdown. Moreover, all three habits lead to higher medical costs. In theory governments can make up these costs, or “externalities”, with a tax that adjusts the prices people pay to puff, booze or punt. Such a tax might also encourage consumers to live healthier lives.

Support for another such tax, on junk food, is now spreading, especially in America. Congress is considering a tax on sugary drinks to help pay for the planned expansion of health-care coverage. Some analysts would like to see broader duties on junk food. On July 27th the Urban Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC, proposed a 10% tax on “fattening food of little nutritional value” that, it claimed, would raise $500 billion over ten years.

The logic for a tax on fattening food may seem obvious. About one-third of Americans are obese, up from 15% in 1980. Fat people are more prone to heart disease, diabetes, bone disorders and cancer. An obese person’s annual medical costs are more than $700 greater than those of a comparable thin person. The total medical costs of obesity surpass $200 billion a year in America, which is higher than the bill for smoking. These costs are not all borne by the obese. When health-care costs are shared, obesity becomes a burden for everyone. Thanks to government health-care plans such as Medicare half of America’s obesity-related health costs land on taxpayers. In private employer-sponsored health plans the slim pay similar premiums to the overweight.

But would a fat tax affect behaviour?


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