Paul L. Caron

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Healthy Food Tax Credit, Not a Fat Tax

Chris L. Winstanley (J.D. 2008, Oregon) has published Comment, A Healthy Food Tax Credit: Moving Away From the Fat Tax and its Fault-Based Paradigm, 86 Or. L. Rev. 1151 (2007).  Here is part of the Introduction:

This Comment argues that the imposition of a fat tax is not a viable approach to address America's obesity crisis, primarily because such a tax is rooted within a fault-based paradigm. A tax policy that penalizes individuals for their condition stigmatizes obesity. Moreover, a fat tax is regressive policy--that is, it places a disproportionate tax burden on low-income individuals. Given the known correlation between poverty and obesity, increasing the price of unhealthy foods will likely exacerbate the socioeconomic conditions that can lead to obesity in the first place. Finally, by focusing on the individual, a fat tax risks not addressing socioeconomic and environmental causes of obesity and hence ignores solutions that could have a more lasting and beneficial impact.

Despite the limitations of a fat tax rooted within a framework of blame, this Comment argues that the tax system can be an effective vehicle for confronting obesity. In light of the public health perspective, I propose targeting high-risk populations by creating a Healthy Food Tax Credit. This would be a tax incentive in the form of a refundable tax credit for money spent on qualifying healthy foods. In other words, “we can turn [the] stick into a carrot.”

Part I of this Comment canvasses the obesity crisis in the United States and emphasizes the correlation between obesity and high-risk populations, including the marginalized poor and inner-city minority populations. It then contrasts the fault-based paradigm against the public health perspective, and advocates the adoption of the latter, scientific view. In Part II, I provide a brief history of sin taxes in America, and document the emergence of proposed and actual fat taxes. I examine one such proposal in particular, which would function as an implicit insurance premium. I conclude that this proposal fails principally because, like all fat-tax proposals, it remains rooted under the purview of individual fault. Part III describes the emerging popularity of tax credits to assist low-income Americans. In light of this trend, I set out my proposal, the Healthy Food Tax Credit, and argue that it represents a preferable long-term economic and public health approach to our nation's weight problem.

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