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When I first heard about the eight percent “sugar tax” that recently passed in the Mexican Senate, I immediately thought that it was a great idea. Not as national policy—about that I am not so sure—but as a way to limit my own daughter’s consumption of candy and sweets. After my daughter’s trick-or-treat haul was halved in just a weekend, I was ready to consider anything.
While the idea of a sugar tax, fat tax, or snack tax might make good sense from a parenting perspective, things tend to get more complex when the discussion turns to national policy. While parents only have to deal with pushback from their children, governments have to deal with pushback from the companies that produce the taxed foods and citizens who feel that their rights are being infringed. You can’t simply send political lobbyists and enraged citizens to their respective rooms.
Denmark was the first country to try a fat tax; the tax was repealed a year later. Essentially, it worked like this: Imagine a parent “taxed” his child for dessert. In order to get the treat, the child would have to do pull-ups (an actual tax I had to pay in basic training for the privilege of dessert). All of a sudden, the parent notices that his children are going out to dinner at their friends Germany’s and Sweden’s houses, because they have awesome dessert and no one has to do any pull-ups for anything.
A study published in 2007 suggests that in order to affect obesity on a national level, these taxes would have to raise the prices of the targeted foods by as much as 20 percent. In keeping with the pull-up metaphor, this would be akin to asking the poorest child to perform a number of pull-ups that would be physically impossible. Even the really fit kids would struggle to do it.
Still, Mexico has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest obesity rate in the world. Even conservative commentators such as CNN’s David Frum argue that “[e]ven marginal improvements are worth pursuing there.” In a sense, if the tax only slightly reduces the consumption of unhealthy food—in Mexico, at least—it’s still an improvement.
Yet the tax may not be the answer. As a parent, you don’t want to punish bad behavior forever; you want the punishment to affect positive changes to that behavior. Because these taxes are levied on food essentials like bread or milk and butter, it becomes something people learn to live with and doesn’t encourage them to make long term changes for a better diet.
What do you think? Is a sugar tax or something like it the best way to reduce health problems in a population, or does the answer lie in personal responsibility?