Time for a 'fat tax' on Wendy's, McDonald's?

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted June 5, 2000

Ever-increasing budgets being the lifeblood of a bureaucracy, cynics have long contended that when the federal government runs out of legitimate wars to fight and crises to solve, it just invents new ones.

Witness the two-day "federal nutrition and health summit" convened in Washington May 30.

The latest crisis requiring an emergency allocation? About 52 percent of Americans are now overweight -- carrying around 20 pounds more than their theoretical "ideal weight" -- up from 33 percent just a decade ago, Agriculture bureaucrats breathlessly revealed.

This, of course, turns out to be just another troubling side effect of our capitalist prosperity -- always a reliable villain.

Busy Americans are eating fewer meals at home and more at restaurants, you see, and "Restaurant meals typically have more calories, more fat and more sugar than food consumed at home," explains Roger Rosenblatt, covering the conference for the Los Angeles Times.

("Hey honey, we both had a tough day in the office, what say we just send out for celery sticks?")

How is this any of the government's concern? "Policy-makers worry about the enormous costs the nation will sustain to pay for doctor and hospital bills as the baby boom generation moves into middle age and beyond," Mr.

Rosenblatt of the Times explains.

Note that interesting construction: "the nation." The last time you hauled a child to the doctor with a fever, did you find you could breezily inform the receptionist, "Oh, just send that bill to 'the nation,' will you please?"

"The nation" doesn't pay most Americans' medical bills, even if we let the propagandists get away with confusing "the nation" with "the federal government," which is a different thing entirely.

To the extent that the Medicare and Medicaid boondoggles do create an "entitlement" for the poor to have their medical bills paid by the rest of us -- no matter how reckless their behavior -- this should only sound a further cautionary Klaxon against the relentless march of socialized medicine.

But the "policy-makers" don't stop there. No, "There are an estimated 120,000 premature deaths each year related to dietary factors -- about 20 percent of heart disease and stroke fatalities, and 30 percent of cancer and diabetes deaths," Mr. Rosenblatt continues. "The financial tally is $70 billion a year, a figure that includes medical bills and lost wages from people who become ill."

Goodness. So we "cost the nation" when we take sick days? What about if we retire early, or move to Costa Rica? How much extra do we owe "the nation," then?

Besides which, pardon me, but isn't it possible that "premature deaths" actually save "the nation" health care costs, by getting more potato-chip eaters out of the way before they're old enough to qualify for Medicare in the first place?

Nonetheless, it is out of just such a fearful-sounding statistical house of cards that the folks at the Agriculture Department -- a department never authorized in the Constitution -- now build their urgent plea for "a sophisticated new marketing approach that would counter fast-food's lure, pitting commercials promoting the appeal of fruits and vegetables against those showing juicy hamburgers."

The new approach will go "far beyond the display of the 'food pyramid' in school classrooms or cafeterias" -- the kind traditionally supplied by the dairy industry, you'll recall, which always identified dairy products as a separate and vital "food group."

No, nowadays "It has to be packaged in a way that is exciting," explains Eileen Kennedy, deputy undersecretary of Agriculture for research, education and economics.

But wait. Cue ominous "Peter and the Wolf" theme music here: "Any nutrition education campaign faces an uphill battle," Mr. Rosenblatt warns in conclusion. "The food industry spends $7 billion a year on advertising, compared with the Agriculture Department's total outlays of less than $350 million. ..."

Oh, the humanity! Just look at the odds they're up against!

Or should we, instead, marvel at the transparency of the implication that this particular set of Washington worker ants -- whose main vocation for 70 years has been to funnel tax moneys to farmers and agricultural conglomerates in the form of subsidies and price supports -- now stand in an adversarial relationship with the evil "food industry," who apparently spend their $7 billion a year seducing Americans into consuming unhealthy doses of poison, dirt, and lard against their will?

It would be tempting to write off Ms. Kennedy's $350 million per year as a mere drop in the bucket as we now measure federal waste. But make no mistake, this will not end with a few "Eat your vegetables" TV ads, any more than the anti-smoking campaign ended with tobacconists required to print the "Surgeon General's warning" on every pack -- any more than gun control ended with a $200 tax on each machine gun back in 1934.

Based on just those precedents, we can now expect to see "menu calorie averaging" requirements, penalty taxes, and coordinated state and federal "health cost liability lawsuits" against the evil fast food behemoths, based on how much "excess fat" they supposedly cram down the throats of unwary Americans.

Why? Because hamburgers, fries, and a Coke kill more Americans than car crashes, legal alcohol, or swimming pool drownings?

Of course not. To identify the next likely candidate for this sequence of gentle federal ministrations, all one has to do is apply Willie Sutton's Law:

"That's where the money is."

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and author of the book "Send in the Waco Killers."

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