By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Obesity is a public health crisis in the United States. There's no debating that it is caused by Americans' sedentary lifestyles and poor food choices. And, before we go any further, I should disclose that I am an active supporter of both the Obesity Institute and the Diabetes Care Complex at Children's National Medical Center. So I care very much about bringing down the rate of obesity in this country.
Having said that, controlling what we put into our mouths is not a job for the government. Ads are running on local TV here in Washington, D.C., urging Congress not to impose a tax on soda and juice drinks. Last month, in an interview, President Obama suggested that a soda tax was worth exploring. Currently a group in New York City supporting Gov. David Patterson's proposed soda tax is sponsoring an ad campaign in New York subways which, according to the Boston Herald, shows soft drinks morphing into yellow globs of human fat. (Actually I don't have a problem with the ads, just the tax.) Over the weekend, a Princeton University professor suggested a tax on red meat in the New York Daily News, since "high taxes on cigarettes have saved many lives." The difference is that cigarettes have been proven to kill people—I'm not sure the tax is what made people quit—while no one has proven that soda kills people.
We don't need the government to tax what it deems to be unhealthy foods—what we need is a shift in the culture. Remember the days when pregnant women smoked and drank? We had a '70s party recently and one pregnant guest showed up in a beehive hairdo, carrying a box of Marlboros and an empty bottle of Dewars. It was so funny because times have changed so much. (In fact, in the mid-1960s, when my mother was pregnant with my sisters, she went to the doctor because of insomnia and asked for sleeping pills. He advised her instead to knock back a stiff Manhattan every night. And because you're pregnant, he said, don't drink the cheap stuff.) Now, pregnant women who drink a glass of white wine in public are practically arrested.
The same cultural change has taken place with kids' car seats, bike helmets, and seat belts—none of which were taxed. Once we start the "sin" taxes, where do they end—Doughnuts? Caesar salad dressing? Whole milk instead of skim? For that matter, how about La-Z-Boy recliners?
Taxes on sodas, red meat, and the like are one more example of government arrogance. It's that mindset so common these days: You people don't know what's good for you, and I do. So give me your money and I'll decide what to do with it.
We'd be far better off with tax incentives for grocery stores and farmers' markets to go into the poorest neighborhoods, so residents have access to fresh produce—a twist on Jack Kemp's "enterprise zones" back in the 1980s. Controlling crime in bad neighborhoods would go a long way toward allowing mothers to feel it's safe for their children to play outside instead of watching TV inside. And how about discounts on health insurance—or a bonus from Medicaid—for joining a health club?
Wouldn't a carrot work better than a stick when it comes to healthy eating?