Taxing Fat

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

David Leonhardt, New York Times economics columnist and staff writer for the Magazine, discusses the idea of a fat tax and how personal responsibility factors into the health care debate.


David Leonhardt

Comments [42]

Barbara Res from Bergen County, NJ

the rest . . .

When I grew up in Brooklyn, everyone was poor. Ironically lots of the adults, especially the women, were fat. I just thought poor people were fat?

I came to the conclusion that poor people were eating crap long ago, like baloney on white bread and cool-aid, a staple in my community, high fat meats which are cheap, lots of potatoes.

The real change, and what makes people fat today is twofold, and this is ALWAYS overlooked in the big analyses.

1. People don't walk anymore. My mother always walked to the supermarket 4 blocks each way. Kids walked to school 10 blocks. Now everyone drives.

2. Temperature regulation. People were always colder in the winter and their bodies burned a bit of fat to maintain temperatures. In the hot hot summer, people drank tons of water and ate very little because it was so hot, who wanted to eat. NOW it is 70 or 72 all year round. We have chili in August and Ice cream on a January night.
So let's really analyze the obesity delimnma and try to avoid blaming it on the people. I find it have to say its irresponsible for an overweight person to have dessert when every one else is having it.

Then if you want to look at personal responsibility, having kid after kid is my number one crime against fellow man. Then comes purely elective activity like stupid extreme sports and killing yourself with work.


Aug. 18 2009 05:27 PM
Barbara Res from Bergen County, NJ

I bristle at the idea that we should enforce personal responsibility by taxing fat people, or taxing them through what they eat.

Everyday I see families with 8 or 10 children. Some of them are very wealthy and some are pathetically poor. For the mostpart, they are adhering to religious guidelines.

I have to pay for these children to be born, and if they have problems, I have to pay to fix them. From my point of view, having 10 children is way more irresponsible than drinking too much coke.

And there are many more examples of lack of discipline in personal activity and interference by religious who are preposterously, as well, tax exempt.

The hotshot who makes $1 million a year and works like a maniac will have a heart attack that I will pay for.

Every year, I pay for scads and scads of broken bones for extreme and not so extreme sports enthusiasts. Skiers who are not fit for the advanced slopes. Men in their 40 who need to slow down a bit on the basketball court.

Then there are the alcoholic and social drinkers. I pay for their bad livers and I pay for the medical costs of the people they hit.

Motorcycle and bike riders who like th ewind in their hair. I pay to fix their crushed heads.

How far can you go with this? Why focus on fatties in such an insulting and demeaning way.

Aug. 18 2009 05:26 PM

I used to spend at least $250 a month at Whole Foods.

Aug. 18 2009 04:54 PM
Linda from warwick, NY

It appears, from reading all the comments on this page, that people know the difference between moral, ethical, and unethical behavior. The corporate/government money making machine is obviously the culprit. We dont need more freedoms circumscribed by them because of yet another smokescreen.

Aug. 18 2009 11:09 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

Joan from Manhattan,
I don’t think anyone on here is seriously trying to punish people like you, you have a diagnosed medical condition. But you have to realize you are very much the exception than the rule. If I am wrong, then we don’t have an epidemic of obesity but an epidemic of brain tumors, thyroid problems, and whatever else causes weight gain unassociated with diet. I do think some people are more susceptible to weigh gain from calorie intake, but certain people are also more susceptible to addiction, over indulging, and other behavioral impulses; that’s about managing the trials in one’s life.

Aug. 18 2009 11:04 AM
Nikki from Irvington (NY)

It would be completely unfair to tax individuals for obesity; instead, we should be addressing the systemic issues that contribute to obesity (as mentioned in the other comments), such as subsidies for corn syrup that make fattening food so cheap (and addictive) in comparison to healthy food. The movie Food, Inc. did a great job of illustrating this. We also need to address the issue of access to healthier food selections in lower-income neighborhoods, where supermarkets are few and far between because the chains are reluctant to locate there.

Aug. 18 2009 10:58 AM
Jgarbuz from Queens, NY

People are more obese today because they eat more high carbohydrate filled foods. The "fat free" mania meant that food processors took out the fats and replaced them with more sugar (carbohydrates). Just look at movies from back in the "meat and potatoes" era, and you will be struck at just how much fewer obese people there were compared to today. Since "fat free" became the rallying cry of the health establishment, the number of fat people has skyrocketed. Eat healthy (not trans fats) fats, such as butter, for example, DOES NOT MAKE YOU FAT! Fats are necessary; sugar isn't.

Aug. 18 2009 10:55 AM
Elektra Gray from NY, NY

In his WSJ article, Whole Food CEO conveniently refers to "recent scientific and medical research" that fails to acknowledge the percentage of diabetes and cardiovascular disease caused by socio-economic issues, i.e.- a lack of access to affordable "plant-based, nutrient dense, low fat" food options. Leonhardt really glossed over this issue as well on the show and completely failed to address it in his NYT article. The issue is way more complicated than taxing soda and Red Bull. No more Whole Foods for me.

Aug. 18 2009 10:54 AM
db from nyc

John Mackey sells plenty of crap at his stores with dubious nutritional value. I recently saw shoulder-high columns of tubs of "organic" cotton candy!!! Whole Foods has an enormous dessert bar and an entire row dedicated to "organic" potato chips. Crap is crap, just because it's labeled ORGANIC doesn't mean it's healthy or environmentally friendly or sustainable.

Use you're brains, don't buy the organic hype. Get to the farmers market. Eat responsibly!

Aug. 18 2009 10:53 AM
Jim Byrne from Bushwick

Very disappointing.
No mention of corn subsidy.

Is David Leonhardt a Rush Limbaugh dittohead trying to shift the healthcare debate to "Taxing Fat People"?

Aug. 18 2009 10:52 AM
Joan from Manhattan

Being overweight is already a major burden. I know the difference how I was treated as a slim person and now as a heavy person. I have been overweight for over 10 years & looked for medical help rigorously, as I eat properly & exercise. I was very concerned about the affects on my body and my ability to continue to do the things I enjoy. After much fighting with insurance company & thankfully to a young doctor's diligence, it was discovered that I have a pituitary tumor. Due to a lack of interest or intellectual curiousity from my many different physician over the years, I lost many years of better health and appearance. Now we can see in black & white that this has NOT been my fault. Three years after this diagnosis, I still await a treatment that will offset the hormone deficiencies I have & it can cost upwards of $1,300 a month. Very frustrating for an active person who is doing all the right things. Let's get the insurance companies to stop influencing our doctor's decisions. And doctors need to LISTEN to their patients. When we can get appropriate medical care, diagnosis and treatment plans, then maybe we can look to punishing people, like me, with taxes. This is so degrading.

Aug. 18 2009 10:49 AM
Gabby from New Jersey

obesity and it's associated ills may add to the collective health costs but to blame obesity for the rise in premiums is hardly fair. Millions have in vitro paid for by insurance? Half a million per person for infertility and in vitro ??? now you're talking about the costs passed on to other insureds. How many millions for coverage of spinal manipulations? How many millions for acupuncture? Really now... I should be paying for somebody else's attempts to get pregnant? I think not.

Aug. 18 2009 10:48 AM
Brian from Nyack

While people may have different body types, I don't think anyone is "naturally" fat or chubby.
With the recent 40th anniversary of Woodstock I've been looking at footage and the most striking thing about it (my whole family was amazed at this) there are no fat people!! Look back at old footage--not many obese people
Our diets have changed and portion size and so we have changed.
If you eat supersized you get supersized.

Aug. 18 2009 10:47 AM
artista from greenpoint

WHY would you have such a segment in relation to the health care debate? Mackey is clearly a self-interested blowhard, who pushes the imaginary idea that eating is directly related to diseases, but why should we treat his nonsense seriously? Leonhardt proves himself a poor commentator: that's good to know, but let's keep our eye on the ball. People don't have the right to gorge & then stick others with the bill?
How about facing reality: Many American's DON'T HAVE HEALTH CARE! THAT'S the issue.
Do I develop kidney disease, let's say, because I eat poorly? Or a genetically based disease? or mental illness? Do I break my leg because I jaywalked& therefore should be denied care? What is the relevance to the matter of health care for all?

Healthcare compared

Health spending as a share of GDP
US 16%
UK 8.4%

Public spending on healthcare (% of total spending on
US 45%
UK 82%

Health spending per head
US $7,290
UK $2,992

Practising physicians (per 1,000 people)
US 2.4
UK 2.5

Nurses (per 1,000 people)
US 10.6
UK 10.0

Acute care hospital beds (per 1,000 people)
US 2.7
UK 2.6

Life expectancy:
US 78
UK 80

Infant mortality (per 1,000 live births)
US 6.7
UK 4.8

Source: WHO/OECD Health Data 2009

Aug. 18 2009 10:46 AM
Susan from Manhattan

Obesity is more often find in lower socio-economic areas across the country. In many cases, people who live in these areas are on food stamps and government aide. Why is it that someone can use an EBT card or food stamps to buy junk food? Perhaps the gov't could look into adding those items to the list of things you can't buy with food stamps.

Aug. 18 2009 10:45 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

And yes, a vast minority of people are “born chubby” but unless Americans have undergone huge genetic shifts in the past decades, it’s the diet, not the genes. Look at how Americans have ballooned from 1909 to 2009.

And before we tax fat inducing foods we need to end farm subsidies that make high fructose corn syrup, corn fed beef, and food additives possible.

Bad government spending begat obesity begat the part of the health disaster we have. Once we tackle that, move on to the deliberate engineering of foods to induce an attraction to cheap and less healthful foodstuffs.

Aug. 18 2009 10:44 AM
jj from Brooklyn

Sarah from Weston CT : AMEN

While we're at it.. let's not forget... childhood Type 1 diabetics grow up to be adults.

And yes - stop subsidizing in all of the wrong places!

type 1 for 33 years which has NOTHING to do with weight.

Aug. 18 2009 10:44 AM
Norman from Manhattan

If only Ralph Nader were president, he could lead us out of this.

Aug. 18 2009 10:43 AM
Norman from Manhattan

If only Ralph Nader were president, he could lead us out of this.

Aug. 18 2009 10:43 AM
V from NJ

If we were serious about controling obesity in this country we wouldn't be subsidizing unhealthy foods. There is a reason why the food that is the worst for you also happens to be amoung the cheapest and that's special interest groups funneling money toward the food industry.

Aug. 18 2009 10:43 AM
Cathi from Queens, New York

Additionally, while the issue of passing the buck/ costs of obesity related health care expenditures was addressed, what about the costs of subsidies used to pay for the mass production of corn syrup and processed foods?

Aug. 18 2009 10:42 AM
Kitty Graves from Connecticut

I think that we need to address this problem at its source. OUr government is subsidizing corn production which is what keeps the cost of high fructose corn syrup so low that sweet sodas are cheaper than bottled water. Not to mention the corn that is fed to the beef and chicken to keep their cost down. WE NEED TO STOP SUBSIDIZING THE GROWING OF CORN.

Aug. 18 2009 10:42 AM
Ben Dickerson from Lincroft, NJ

Last year, when I was 39 years old I had a stroke. I have never smoked and I am not overwheight and I had one to two beers on the weekends. It was my carotid artery. It just disected out of the blue and I had a stroke. Do you want to tax me?

Aug. 18 2009 10:42 AM

An apple is about 2 dollars cheaper than a bag of chips

Aug. 18 2009 10:41 AM

Instead of instituting a tax, why not end the farm subsidies that promote corn and sugar by making these products, as well as their beneficiaries (soda, fast food) artificially cheap?

Aug. 18 2009 10:40 AM
Jim Byrne from Bushwick

"End subsidy for soda."
"End subsidy for corn syrup."
"Invest in healthy foods."

Please stop talking about talking increasing taxes, especially on food, your going to get crushed by conservatives.

Aug. 18 2009 10:40 AM

This is a stupid idea. The problem is how we subsidize food in this country. The bottomline we have set up a system that delivers the most calories per gram. This was due to Nixon and the concern about food security when food prices were rising in the 70s. This has been discussed extensively on WNYC.

Also we have become more sedintary in our lifestyles and don't need as many calories.

Aug. 18 2009 10:40 AM
Jeannine from Manhattan

We should be taxing the food and drug companies that are producing harmful substances for consumption. they are getting rich by making people sick, then their buddies at the chemical industry can get hard at work to create more drugs to alleviate the symptoms instead of looking at the root causes of these 'modern' diseases. the truth is that there is no profits in wellness, but health should not be based on a for-profit business model which perpetuates the creation of all of these harmful products. Why are agribusiness executives writing our laws on agriculture?

Aug. 18 2009 10:40 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

Did the guest just compare weight loss and diet to cancer?
You can argue some cancers are caused by patient behavior by things like smoking and UV exposure but if this is how an employee of the NYT constructs an argument of equivalents…. No wonder the corporation is in trouble.
Can’t wait ‘til all of those children at St. Jude’s hears it’s their fault they are dying.

Aug. 18 2009 10:39 AM
Cathi from Queens, New York

I don't think the parallels between cigarette tax and the proposed fat tax are really comparable. It's usually the case that fattier foods are less expensive than healthier foods. Until the issue of subsidies used in the production of unhealthy foods etc. I question how helpful the "fat tax" would be or whether we are addressing the core issue.

Aug. 18 2009 10:39 AM
Moss DiFalco from Westchester

This is crazy. Any food with a caloric content is potentially "fattening". Shall we tax whole milk but not skim? GENERALLY speaking, obesity results from overeating, a behavior that is encouraged by the supersize mentality. BTW, I think there is just as much sugar in 8 oz of orange juice as there is in soda.

Aug. 18 2009 10:39 AM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

Forget Whole Foods. Support your local farmers and sustainable producers! Buy your fruits, veggies, cheese, meats, fish, breads -- at the Greenmarkets all over the city! Most of these producers are organic -- and even those that aren't strike a balance. But what you get is delicious fresh produce that doesn't travel thousands of miles to reach you.

Aug. 18 2009 10:39 AM
Robert from NYC

Oh dear, time to switch to tv History channel. Bye

Aug. 18 2009 10:36 AM

Why not tax junk food, soda and other bad food? Doesn't that target behavioral things? And no one needs those items.

Aug. 18 2009 10:36 AM
Caitlin from Jersey City

I don't think there's anything tricky to cutting subsidies to the corn industry.

Aug. 18 2009 10:33 AM
hjs from 11211

boycott whole foods!

Aug. 18 2009 10:32 AM
the truth from bkny

This is a rude suggestions and unfair...said the naturally skinny girl.

Aug. 18 2009 10:32 AM
hjs from 11211

sure tax fat people and tax smokers and tax drinkers BUT people stop subsidizing the high fructose corn syrup industry and the beef industry. tax them also!

Aug. 18 2009 10:27 AM

You don't tax fat people, but there's nothing wrong with taxing fast food or something like that.

Unfortunately, we give tax breaks to the food industry in all the wrong places, so instead of encouraging healthy eating (or even healthy, competitive business practices) it subsidizes things like putting corn syrup in our food and restricts hormone testing in beef.

Aug. 18 2009 10:24 AM
Sarah from Weston CT

Please take care in this discussion to be clear and distinguish between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in your discussion of health, obesity and cost. My child lives with Type 1 diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was 4 years old. Her life threatening and exhausting disease is an autoimmune disease which has nothing to do with her
"lifestyle" as a toddler and young child. It is painful for all of us living with Type 1 to hear the steady drum beat of "Obesity and diabetes" please, if you're talking about Type 2 PLEASE, call it Type 2.

Aug. 18 2009 10:20 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

This is scary stuff. When the government takes all responsibiltiy for your healthcare, it will presume a voice on how you live and what "burden" you and your behavior are to the health system. Even Leonhardt's NYT article raises the spector of "limiting people's choices".

The number of different sexual contacts that you have raises your medical risk level. Will the next version of healthcare initiatives move to limit the number of allowable sexual partners or impose a "promiscuity tax"?

Libertarians should not be blinded by politics in this slippery slope of personal freedoms.

Aug. 18 2009 10:16 AM
Norman from Manhattan

It is well established that women who start having children earlier in life, have more children, and breast feed after they give birth, are less likely to get breast cancer.

If women don't have children, and therefore increase their chances of getting breast cancer, should they pay more for health care than the rest of us?

Aug. 18 2009 10:09 AM

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