American Beat: Let's Hear It For A Fat Tax

Allow me to defend what is apparently the indefensible. Last week, a lawmaker in New York proposed a 1 percent tax on junk food to create a pool of money to fight the epidemic of child obesity.

You will notice the word "tax." That one little word has set off a firestorm. "Now they want to tax your Twinkies," mocked the New York Daily News, in a typical flash of journalistic objectivity.

Clearly, great newspaper minds may differ. To me, this is the greatest idea since sliced bread (better still, considering that sliced bread is most likely laced with hydrogenated oil). As a nation, we have become so fat that we really do deserve to be called ugly Americans. Walking down the street on a dark night, I can't tell if I'm being stalked by two grizzly bears or just my neighbors. We are a nation so fat that Ruben Studdard--the golden-voiced scale-buster from Birmingham--is now considered a model for what pop stars should look like. How fat are we? Well, let's put it this way, most of us squeak when we go through a doorway. Of course SUVs have become the fastest-selling cars; we can't fit into anything else.

According to the Centers for Disease Control--which now considers obesity an epidemic--61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. (A recent Harris Poll put the figure at 80 percent, up from 58 percent in 1983.) The fastest weight gain is among children. Thirty years ago, only 5 percent of American kids were overweight. Today, it's 15 percent.

Other statistics show that obesity causes 300,000 deaths each year and costs the economy $117 billion per year in additional health-care expenses. New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, the Brooklyn Democrat who floated the tax idea, believes that a tax would create a small disincentive towards the consumption of high-fat, low-nutrition foods and, perhaps, reduce those numbers.

Oh, but there's that word again. Tax. In today's climate, it seems that voters would sooner accept a politician who sleeps with sheep than a politician who would willfully raise taxes or invent new ones.

Of course, the attack on Ortiz's "fat tax" is disingenuous. We already have special taxes on cigarettes and alcohol in hopes of discouraging widespread use of these deadly substances. Yet only a fringe group of militant anti-tax Libertarians (hey, some of my best friends are militant anti-tax Libertarians, but that doesn't mean I don't think they're wackos) would fail to see their value.

So if we can tax cancer sticks, why can't we attack obesity oils or treacherous trans fats? After all, the annual health-care costs associated with tobacco, according to the CDC, is $75 billion, compared with the $117 billion for obesity. To steal the Daily News's "us" and "them" rhetoric, the only reason "they" want to go after "your" Twinkie is because "your" obesity is costing "our" system billions of dollars a year.

That logic was lost on most of the newspapers in my state. A paper in Binghamton admitted that "in the case of cigarettes, the tax is a good idea," but then editorialized that a very similar tax on high fat foods was "out of control"--the equivalent of a "Government Gone Wild" video. The editorial went on to say that Ortiz's 1 percent tax--which the lawmaker also wants to apply to the video games and TV ads that keep children sedentary--would drive the economy "into ruin," an extremely unlikely prospect.

Clearly, it's difficult to have a substantive debate on this topic, given the short-attention spans and superficiality of the American media. I have a good deal of experience in this area (and not just because I have a short attention span and have been described by friends as superficial). Last year, I wrote a story about a California state legislator--also named Ortiz, but not related to Felix--who had proposed a one cent tax on sugar-sweetened soda pop.

That legislator, Deborah Ortiz, was turned into Public Enemy Number One by California's notoriously vocal anti-tax community. Every time Ortiz tried to cite the very same figures I cited above, she was shouted down and threatened. (Hey, you don't like her tax idea, fine, but are death threats really necessary because a lawmaker has proposed turning a 75-cent can of soda into a 76-cent can of soda?)

My favorite attack on Ortiz came from her Assembly counterpart, John Campbell (R-Irvine). "Where will this ever stop?" asked Campbell. "Are they going to tax the butter on my carrots because carrots are healthier without butter?" That remark put Campbell in my personal Knee Jerks Hall of Fame. There's just something so endearing about a lawmaker so repulsed by the notion that he might be eating something healthy that he needs to slather it with rendered cow fat just to get them down--and then feels self-righteous about it!

I got a tiny taste of what Ortiz went through. When I defended her proposal last year, two right-wing talk radio hosts in Los Angeles read my column on the air, albeit annotated with frequent personal attacks. Then they topped it off by making fun of my last name, which is the kind of high-level comic genius that made Jimmy Franz the funniest guy in my school--when we were in fourth grade, that is.

When they finally let me talk about what I liked about the proposal, they shut up long enough for me to get a word in. And then they started making fun of my name again. So much for reasoned discourse.

California's Ortiz said the only problem with the so-called fat taxes is timing. "The first phases of any battle like this are the bloodiest," she told me. "It took 20 years for the general public, even conservatives, to get to the right place on tobacco." Now, Ortiz said, a new poll showed that 72 percent of Republican women in California support her proposal for a $1.50 hike in the state's tax on cigarettes.

Ortiz believes that some day trans fats, hydrogenated oils and carbohydrates will be understood as the killers they are (although we not only love the taste of these fats and sugars, but their cost: high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil are much cheaper to produce).

On talk radio you hear the argument that Americans don't need government to be our Big Brother or, in this case, our Big Nanny. I would argue that we do. We don't read labels on anything, for some reason trusting big food-processing conglomerates and fast food restaurants to feed us whatever mix of chemicals they can manufacture cheaply yet still have the finished product vaguely resemble food.

And, as Henny Youngman used to say, "Take my mother. Please." Here's a woman who is as sweet as the day is long and as savvy a consumer as Ralph Nader. But does she ever read a label? Does she know what a partially hydrogenated fat is? When she baby-sits for my 2-year-old, she always knows to ask me if it's all right for her to give my daughter "a little treat," usually a cookie or a biscuit. And I always say this: Of course it's OK to give her a treat. But if the label says "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," that's not a tasty treat, it's a toxic taint.