Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Is obesity tax a healthy option?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is calling for taxes to combat obesity.

In a draft sent to member-states, the WHO has outlined its global strategy on diet, exercise and health. According to the WHO, wrong diet and physical inactivity are leading causes of illness and death. So, it recommends that governments adopt policies to combat obesity, heart disease, and other such diet-related health problems.

Now, if you ask what is obesity, there's a definition on WHO's Web site: Obesity is the increase in body weight beyond skeletal and physical standards as the result of excessive accumulation of fat in the body. Simply put, more than two times the ideal weight is considered obesity.

"The prevalence of overweight and obesity is commonly assessed by using body mass index (BMI), defined as the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in metres (kg/m{+2}). A BMI over 25 kg/m{+2} is defined as overweight, and a BMI of over 30 kg/m{+2} as obese." Dangerously, "the distribution of BMI is shifting upwards in many populations." Also, the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes and hypertension rises steeply with increasing body fatness; these were "confined to older adults for most of the 20th century" but now affect obese children "even before puberty."

A fact-sheet on the site gives alarming facts and figures: Globally, there are more than 1 billion overweight adults, at least 300 million of them obese. Childhood obesity is already epidemic in some areas and on the rise in others; an estimated 17.6 million children under five are estimated to be overweight worldwide. Approximately one in two cases of diabetes, and one in five in the case of ischaemic heart disease are attributable to a BMI above 21 kg/m{+2}.

WHO's call to the governments is that they should limit unhealthy foods in school; look at how food is marketed to kids; encourage the use of less sodium, saturated and trans fats, or sugars in certain foods; review food pricing policies, taxes and agricultural subsidies to promote the consumption of "more healthful foods," according to the report.

To curtail Japan's overweight population, the Japanese health ministry recently mandated that all waistlines among its 56 million workers over age 40 be below “regulation size” of 33.5 inches (for men). Any company failing to bring its employees’ weight under control--as well as the weights of their family members--will be fined up to 10% of its earnings by the government.

According to government officials, 27 million Japanese--about half of all adult workers--have health indices (cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and BMI) that don’t meet ideal numbers, and will be targeted for mandatory medical intervention. The director of the Medical Urban Clinic in Osaka, Toshio Mochizuki, says he is concerned about the new movement. “I’m worried that the overweight will start to be shunned at the workplace and these new rules will make no one want to hire them,” he said.

Last week the governor of New York State, David Patterson proposed a tax on soft drinks and other “sugared beverages.

Comparing the obesity epidemic of today to the smoking insurgence of decades gone by, he argues that taxing a large contributor to obesity may help decrease the problem. Similar to how cigarette taxes helped decrease the amount of smokers, he believes people will think twice before spending extra money on soft drinks.

While I’m not certain how effective the tax will be and only time will tell, I do think it’s a major step in the right direction. If citizens are unwilling or somehow unable to regulate their own health, a tax on harmful “luxury” items like this may be a good answer.

What’s your take on it? Is this too much government interference in our choice of foods or is this a reasonable tax on an unnecessary luxury?


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