We’ve been asking this question for awhile, coming back to whether or not we should enforce a “fat tax” or even go for all out bans of the “bad stuff.” New York banned trans fats in 2006, which eventually led to the FDA’s 2013 preliminary ruling on a national ban. In California, lawmakers proposed a bill that would require soda companies to put warning labels on their bottles, and in January, Mexico’s soda tax went into effect. Are bad foods the next tobacco?
Often the question comes down to whether or not government bans and taxes work. For others it’s a matter of personal freedom; you should be able to buy and eat what you want, and reducing obesity comes down to individually choosing to eat better.
But how does that personal choice fair in a world of fast food chains and industrial agriculture? As it turns out, the free market isn’t doing a whole lot for public health figures. Even the World Health Organization has told governments that they should — and can — be doing more to curb obesity since according to a new WHO study, the more deregulated the market, the more fast food consumption and the more health problems.
We might think we have a personal choice about what we eat, but while fast food and soda companies may promote consuming in moderation, with all of the addictive qualities of these foods, it’s no surprise that we have a hard time doing exactly that. Personal choice isn’t so personal anymore; it has already been decided for us.
“The obesity epidemic and the problems with overeating don’t have too much to do with people overeating fruits and healthy foods. They have a lot to do with people overeating excess sugars and fats,” said Nicole Avena, a faculty member at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University told the New York Times.
And maybe that’s part of the problem. Producing excess sugar and fats has become cheap, so our personal choice when we sit at the restaurant or stand in front of the grocery aisle are more skewed by what products are cheap and readily available. And that isn’t always vegetables.
When it comes to food and government regulation, some argue that we have to forget soda taxes and think bigger picture. If we want to deal with the problem of public obesity then we need to go to the source: the cheap food that’s produced and then used in these foods. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, only 1 percent of food subsidies go to fruits and vegetables. If we want to get Americans back on a healthier track, then we have to stop making things like corn, meat and dairy (which get 87 percent of subsidies) so much cheaper.
That same study also points out that the government “purchases surplus foods like cheese, milk, pork, and beef for distribution to food assistance programs — including school lunches. The government is not required to purchase nutritious foods.”
Is the health situation bad enough to necessitate an intervention?
From a mere economic perspective, yes, because as we can see, the market is failing to keep us healthy.
“Economists generally agree that government intervention, including taxation, is justified when the market fails to provide the optimum amount of a good for society’s well-being,” says Oliver Mytton of the British Heart Foundation’s Health Promotion Research Group, co-author of a report in the British Medical Journal on the effect of food taxes on different populations.
To truly change the direction of public health, we will need personal and policy change, and not just in the form of taxes. We must build a system that doesn’t keep fast food cheap and fruit and vegetables expensive. Because that is a system that truly isn’t sustainable, or healthy. It is simply a system that keeps big industry wealthy and the population sick.
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