Thursday, April 04, 2013

Idea: Calorie Tax

San Francisco has been in the news recently for attempts to ban toys from children's meals at fast food restaurants.

And New York has been in the news recently for attempts to ban sugary drinks over a certain size.

Both attempts have been nearly universally decried by people who just see "the man" trying to tell them what to do or how to live.

If I understand correctly (and I may not), the actual attempt in boh cases is the better health of their citizens, not just because they feel a moral obligation to protect people from their own stupidity (like requiring helmets or seat belts) but I think it's also because of the burden that unhealthy behavior puts on society, especially in the case of health care costs.

So I was wondering... if you can't ban unhealthy behaviors (you could always buy multiple small sugary beverages or drive outside the city limits), why not tax it?  If our insurance companies charge us based on our annual driving or our gasoline is taxed based on how many gallons we purchase, why not tax calories?

To me, if the ultimate goal is healthier behavior and a reduction in health care costs, it seems that simply preventing the availability of something doesn't actually help that to happen - it's only when people understand the implications do they actually consider changing their behavior.  And if every 10 calories costs you a penny, people start paying attention - the businesses who suddenly have to confront the idea that their food might not be healthy, as well as customers who have to decide whether they want to pay an extra $1.36 (1,360 calories) for the Burger King Triple Whopper Combo meal (that's with a diet soda that has no calories and a small fries and no ketchup for your fries) or $1.13 (1,134 calories) for a 40oz Dr. Pepper at Taco Bell.

Of course, they would need to list the surcharges separately on the receipt and menu board so that they'd be visible to everyone.  And the taxes would need to go into a fund that helps with medical care.

But you don't change behavior by taking something away, you change behavior by helping people make smarter choices by showing them the true costs of their actions.


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