Will Danes Influence US Tax Policy? Fat Chance.

There’s no way round it: Americans are getting fat.

According to the CDC, there has been a “dramatic increase in obesity” over the past twenty years. Across the country, about a third of all adults are classified as obese, meaning that they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. To put that into perspective, a person who is 5’9″ would be considered healthy at a weight between 125 and 168 pounds; a BMI of 30 would put his or her weight at more than 203 pounds.

As of last year, no single state had an obesity rate of less than 20%. Near three quarters of all states had an obesity rate of at least 25%. And twelve states – nearly all of them southern (and you know I write this as a southern girl) – reported obesity rates of 30% or more: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

So what if we’re fat?

Well, besides the obvious – shorter life spans and the unfortunate butt of jokes from Canadians (which really hurt, eh?) – it’s expensive. In 2008, Health Affairs reported that medical costs related to obesity were estimated at $147 billion. That works out to $1,429 in higher costs than folks considered to be a “normal” weight. For a nation concerned about the overwhelming cost of health care, that should give us pause.

It also raises an interesting point: who should pay those costs?

I know it’s on the tip of your tongue to say that it should be an individual responsibility. But that’s neither practical nor legal. We can’t charge different rates at the doctor based on your health and weight nor can insurers charge you based on your BMI – not without a humongous lawsuit.

Many government officials have tried to pass along the costs in the form of various taxes attached to unhealthy food choices. In Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter tried to push a soda tax through to raise revenue; then Governor Paterson made noise about the same thing in New York, labeling it a “fat tax” – neither official ended up passing the measure. Congress even considered a similar proposal and ultimately tabled it.

Other locales have tried to push similar ideas through, proposing a “fat tax” on everything from sugary drinks to sodas to fatty foods. So far, we, as a country, haven’t budged. And we’re still fat.

But does that mean the idea won’t work? Or just that we don’t like it?

Denmark thinks it’s the latter. The country, known for such food delicacies as røget Ål med røræg (Smoked eel with scrambled eggs – lettuces – parsley and lemon) and its most popular sandwich spread, leverpostej (liver paste), has gone on the offensive to combat obesity, acknowledging that some taxpayers won’t be happy. Nonetheless, the Danes have passed their own version of the “fat tax”, slapping a tax on foods which contain more than 2.3% saturated fat. Butter, chips, pizzas – they’re all fair game. The money raised will ostensibly be used to fight obesity, quite a refreshing change from other so-called sin taxes which are clearly just revenue-raisers in disguise.

This isn’t the first move Denmark has taken to keep its population slim. They’ve already banned trans fats (along with Switzerland and Austria) in a country with an already svelte population – fewer than 10% of Danes are considered obese.

Other countries are taking stock. Hungary (insert food related joke here) recently passed a tax on foods with high fat, sugar and salt content; they are also increasing taxes on soda and alcohol. The revenue will be used to combat escalating health care costs. The government took those measures in response to reports that indicated that Hungarians are among the fattest Europeans with a 18.8% obesity rate, nearly double that of the Danes (but still just under half of the rates of we Americans).

Finland, likewise, is considering a “fat tax” after seeing the proposal in Denmark. Targeted foods would include cheese, cream, butter, greasy cold cuts and sausages – all of the good stuff. I’m guessing that poronkäristys (sauteed reindeer) and other game would escape the tax (whew, no need to panic).

So does this mean we’re next? Is a fat tax in the cards for the U.S.?


I don’t think it’s beyond the pale that we’ll eventually get something pushed through that will tax trans fats or sugar. After all, we do love our sin taxes in this country. We’ve already slapped taxes on booze, marijuana, hookers and tanning. If someone will pay for it, we can tax it.

So, it might be just a matter of time. But I don’t think it will work – at least not for the goals we claim to want (a slimmer, happier population) and here’s why: sin taxes generally don’t discourage “bad” behavior. Statistically, they don’t really make a dent in how taxpayers spend their money unless the taxes are really big. And in a nation that enjoys its pork rinds and cheesesteaks, taxes on foods, even unhealthy ones, aren’t going that high. And that means that we’re going to continue to eat what we want.

I also don’t really believe that the chip industry is in cahoots with the dairy industry to make us fat. It’s a whole host of behaviors. And attacking only one of them is kind of like replacing the seat belts on our 1976 Fiat: it might make us feel better but those wheels are still going to fly off one day.

I can say this with a little bit of authority. If you follow the blog at all, you know that I have lost some weight. Well, not some. A lot. Prior to this year, I spent a lot of time being overweight. I get that it was unhealthy. I also know that I didn’t sit around eating bags of chips or ice cream (heck, I don’t even really like ice cream). There was a lot going on – ridiculously stubborn genetics, having kids, an uncompromising schedule… Losing weight, for me, required a whole lifestyle change. It wasn’t as easy as just putting a candy bar back on the shelf. If it were that simple, we’d have done it already in this country: we’re obsessed with a magic bullet. It’s why we rush right out to buy the latest diet books and weight reduction pills.

And this is the problem with the idea of a “fat tax.” There’s not a simple fix for obesity; it’s certainly not all wrapped up in taxes. In fact, I’ve always maintained that sin taxes, at the end of the day, are really about the money. We just happen to add a twist by making them double as a punishment. Like other sin taxes, a “fat tax” is really about making taxpayers feel bad about their choices. It’s our way of saying, If you really want that hoagie, then you’re going to pay for it.

But if a taxpayer buys the hoagie anyway – or picks up that pack of cigarettes or tans at a salon or (fill in the blank here with some kind of heartburn inducing behavior) – who really wins?

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