Having recently read David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating and Michael Pollan’s essay Big Food vs. Big Insurance, I have a proposal for how to address a major health care issue. Create a “Calorie added tax” that applies to prepared food served in restaurants. Whether it’s based on the number of calories in the food served or is truly analogous to a Value added tax, it seems like it would be a relatively straightforward way to address the issues that Kessler and Pollan raise.
It appears that the biggest issue with our public health in the United States today is that we are consuming too much unhealthy food – for which calorie count is a useful proxy – and this is leading to a whole series of obesity-related problems. In addition to Kessler’s observations about the food-production industry’s role in engineering food for maximum palatability, leading to overconsumption, I’ve heard Adam Drewnowski observe that while historically less healthy food had a higher cost per calorie, today the reverse is increasingly true (as Pollan notes about government corn subsidies leading to the increased use of high fructose corn syrup). Generally speaking, healthier food now costs more per calorie, so people acting in their economic self-interest have a less healthy diet.
If a calorie tax rewards both producers and consumers for fewer calories being served and eaten, or the tax on those increased calories is used to offset the associated health costs of our societal overconsumption, then perhaps we can reverse in some measure the current cost per calorie relationship.
In practice there would be many details to work out: What’s the definition of “prepared food”? Is it just restaurants, or does prepared food purchased in a supermarket count? Does cola purchased in a restaurant get the tax and cola purchased for consumption at home not? How do you prevent it from being a regressive tax for low-income people who don’t have convenient access to healthier food? While these may sound hard, states deal with these issues today on a regular basis when assessing sales tax. It’s not perfect, but it can be made to work.
Is this likely to happen? I doubt it. I imagine that Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and many other industrial powerhouses would fight it vigorously. But if the predictions of the experts are true, we could be on track for a major health-care crisis in the United States and other developed nations.
If you read this and are inclined to be judgmental about people who are overweight or eat too much unhealthy food, I encourage you to read Kessler’s book. He makes a compelling case that overeating is a by-product of our food industry’s exploitation of humans’ evolutionary history, and that blaming people for this is not much more sensible than blaming people for the color of their hair.