When weight is a taxing matter

August 02, 1994|By Paul Bradley

WHAT THIS country needs is a program that will boost productivity, reduce medical costs, pay off the national debt, and improve fitness. I have just the thing.

It came to me while reading a newspaper report of a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (Actually, the idea came to my wife, but I decided to write about it.)

The JAMA article reported that 1-in-3 American adults is obese. The researchers noted that the number of U.S. fatties swelled by 8 percent from 1980 to 1991; average body weight increased by 8 pounds over that period. The result is that 58 million of us are now at least 20 percent bigger than we should be.

The researchers say that they are alarmed by this, and note that we have ballooned despite a fascination with diet and exercise plans.

Actually, all of the Thighmasters in the world won't solve this problem. We should look for guidance to that old adage of the gluttonous: "When life serves up a lemon, make a lemon meringue pie."

We can solve the problem of American obesity and simultaneously produce a vast improvement in the economy. All we have to do is levy a tax on fat.

Here's how it would work: Each year, citizens would report to the Internal Revenue Service office of their choice for their annual weigh-in. Those who weigh more than what's considered medically ideal for their age, sex and height would pay a tax based on the amount of excess blubber. For example, if the penalty were $10 a pound, a person weighing 20 pounds more than he should would pay $200 in an additional tax.

Think this is an outrageous idea? We already levy a similar tax against smokers. There's a 24-cent tax per pack of cigarettes, and there's talk of raising that to $1. The idea is to raise revenue and discourage a nasty, unhealthy habit.

Why not apply that same logic to obesity? Like smoking, obesity is linked to numerous health problems: heart disease, stroke, diabetes and possibly some forms of cancer. Such health problems result in more absenteeism from jobs, reduce productivity and increase health-care costs.

Do you doubt that people would lose weight to save money? The one thing Americans like better than food is cash.

While the health benefits are obvious, a fat tax would also benefit our economy. Membership roles at fat farms, health spas and racket clubs would swell. Sales of diet foods, fruits and vegetables and vegetarian cook books would soar.

Meanwhile, the market for such fatty foods as beef and pork would shrink. But employment in those areas would be more than compensated by job growth in farming.

With people will argue that such a tax should be placed on fatty foods. But the person who buys the food is not necessarily the one who consumes it to excess. By taxing excess weight, we put the pressure on the person whose behavior needs to change.

Paul Bradley is a pseudonym for a science writer who lives on the Delmarva peninsula and doesn't want his humorous writing confused with his more serious side.

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