Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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The Obesity Tax vs. Sin Taxes & Big Soda

There is lots of interesting news on the obesity front and I thought it might be fun to highlight a couple issues and raise a few questions.


How Fat Are We?

The chart below shows the trends in obesity or overweight in the US over the last 50 years. Things might be leveling off a bit, but the question really is how much worse can it get. In fact some epidemiologists are asking if eventually all Americans will be obese or overweight. For those of you not familiar with the definitions of obesity and overweight you can find them here.




How Much Does Obesity Cost?

The estimates are all over the place, but according to Forbes it is on the order of 450 billion per year or a little less than 3% of GDP (16.8 Trillion) or about 70% of what we spend on national defense. Some of this is medical costs, but some of it is productivity, fuel costs, food costs, you name it.   It is also a lot of money any way you look at it and I believe that the $450 billion estimate is only for obesity and not for overweight. Of course things scale as both individuals and society as a whole moves up the scale, so the combined costs of overweight and obesity are likely significantly higher than those for obesity alone.


What About Big Soda?

The other related news is that there are soda tax questions on the ballot this fall in San Francisco and Oakland, and given the 0 for 30 plus track record of similar ballot questions, some are calling this the “last stand” for soda taxes. As you might imagine this initiative is facing major opposition from so-called big soda, a phrase used by activists to conjure up images of big tobacco and big oil. At the same time “big soda” is promising to voluntarily reduce calorie consumption from their products by 20% by the year 2025. Skeptics have called this a move to avoid or delay regulation right out of the safer cigarette playbook.


Who Pays?

While there is way more to obesity that sugar and sugary drinks, it seems to me that all of us are paying essentially a hidden obesity/overweight “tax”. Thus it might make more sense for those who use products linked to obesity to actually pay a real tax for their behavior.   This could raise revenue to cover some of the costs of the problem and might also lead to behavior changes to reduce the magnitude of the problem. Comprehensive tobacco control took decades to happen. Given the costs and health consequences of obesity, how long will a comprehensive program for calorie control take to emerge? It is almost certainly coming one way or the other.


3 Responses to “The Obesity Tax vs. Sin Taxes & Big Soda”

  1. October 6th, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Sheila Ray says:

    We all pay, in more ways than just financial. I know you are right about this moving slow, but I’m not sure we can afford it.

  2. October 6th, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Sarah says:

    Given that rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, and these groups also tend to have the least access (or ability to afford) lower calorie foods, we can’t simply treat it like we did tobacco. No one needs tobacco to live after all. A “sin” tax on high-calorie foods will hit the groups who can least afford it and is not likely to make a difference.

  3. October 7th, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Sheila Ray says:

    It is possible to eat healthy on little money. I’ve done it. I think the key is getting people back into the kitchen, learning the art of cooking at home. Frozen veggies are packed with nutrition and aren’t very expensive. Dried rice and beans make a complete protein and cost pennies. I think we can do this if we shift how we think about food and cooking.

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