Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Blind Hating Fat Kids

You know it is budget time when spineless politicians who do not have the kahunas to raise taxes on the upper 1% income tax bracket have to come up with creative ways to raise revenue. Sales taxes were a popular alternative once, but because they soak everyone equally they are not always well liked by the masses. So-called "sin taxes" on alcohol and tobacco are also very popular, with the state, that is, but they are about maxed without facing a major black market for those products (already a problem with cigarettes).

Enter the stigmatization of fat people and especially fat kids (as if they do not have to put up with enough already). If one listened to the propaganda from the insurance industry, obesity is going to destroy this country. It cost billions of extra dollars a year in health care costs, for the money grubbers in the private sector, as well as the government. Thus, we must combat this problem head on. The solution? A tax, of course, because when you are killing yourself with a swig of Pepsi the state wants its share of the blood money, least Bill Gates pay an extra 2% to balance the budget.

Commentary: Why we need an obesity tax

Editor's note: David Paterson, a Democrat, is governor of New York

ALBANY, New York (CNN) -- Like many New Yorkers, I remember a time when nearly everyone smoked. In 1950, Collier's reported that more than three-quarters of adult men smoked. This epidemic had a devastating and long-lasting impact on public health.

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a new public health epidemic: childhood obesity.

What smoking was to my parents' generation, obesity is to my children's generation. Nearly one out of every four New Yorkers under the age of 18 is obese. In many high-poverty areas, the rate is closer to one out of three.

That is why, in the state budget I presented last Tuesday, I proposed a tax on sugared beverages like soda. Research has demonstrated that soft-drink consumption is one of the main drivers of childhood obesity.

For example, a study by Harvard researchers found that each additional 12-ounce soft drink consumed per day increases the risk of a child becoming obese by 60 percent. For adults, the association is similar.

If we are to succeed in reducing childhood obesity, we must reduce consumption of sugared beverages. That is the purpose of our proposed tax. We estimate that an 18 percent tax will reduce consumption by five percent.

Our tax would apply only to sugared drinks -- including fruit drinks that are less than 70 percent juice -- that are nondiet. The $404 million this tax would raise next year will go toward funding public health programs, including obesity prevention programs, across New York state.

The surgeon general estimates that obesity was associated with 112,000 deaths in the United States every year. Here in New York state, we spend almost $6.1 billion on health care related to adult obesity -- the second-highest level of spending in the nation.

Last year, legitimate concerns about links between consumption of fast food and the prevalence of heart disease prompted New York City to ban the use of trans fats in restaurant food.

No one can deny the urgency of reducing the rate of obesity, including childhood obesity. Obesity causes serious health problems like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It puts children at much greater risk for life-threatening conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

We must never stigmatize children who are overweight or obese. Yet, for the sake of our children's health, we have an obligation to address this crisis. I believe we can ultimately curb the obesity epidemic the same way we curbed smoking: through smart public policy.

In recent decades, anti-smoking campaigns have raised awareness. Smoking bans have been enacted and enforced. And, perhaps most importantly, we have raised the price of cigarettes.

In June, New York state raised the state cigarette tax an additional $1.25. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, this increase alone will prevent more than 243,000 kids from smoking, save more than 37,000 lives and produce more than $5 billion in health care savings.

These taxes may be unpopular, but their benefits are undeniable. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, for the first time in generations, fewer than 20 percent of Americans smoked. Lung cancer rates have finally begun to decline. As a result, we are all healthier.

Just as the cigarette tax has helped reduce the number of smokers and smoking-related deaths, a tax on highly caloric, non-nutritional beverages can help reduce the prevalence of obesity.

To address the obesity crisis, we need more than just a surcharge on soda. We need to take junk food out of our schools. We need to encourage our children to exercise more. And we need to increase the availability of healthy food in underserved communities.

But to make serious progress in this effort, we need to reduce the consumption of high-calorie drinks like nondiet soda among children and adults.

I understand that New Yorkers may not like paying a surcharge for their favorite drinks. But surely it's a small price to pay for our children's health.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Paterson.

Of course, this is all done under sloganeering mantras, like promoting health, responsibility, and battling health "epidemics," like childhood diabetes and obesity. This is the preferred line of folks like Governor Paterson. Notice, the solution never includes the banishment of the product that is contributing to the problem (and it is not commonly accepted that it is even the lead cause of the problem, by the way). Children are drinking too much Mountain Dew and becoming fat (never mind their eating habits), so we must tax the other 99% of the population of adults with a surcharge to drink their pop. If 80% of the population used heroin and meth, you would almost certainly see a similar tax on those products, instead of banning them (which the state only does when an acceptably low percentage of the population is abusing the product, making it enforceable to outlaw it).

The problem with Paterson's two-faced proposal is that it is attacking the problem in the wrong place and for the wrong reason. Obesity is certainly a problem, but stigmatizing fat people (while popular) is not going to eliminate it (it is not as though we love them now and just need to look down upon them more [just ask someone who is obese about any run-ins with people who hold Paterson's attitudes]). Neither is a tax going to solve the problem (which is almost certainly just a revenue ploy). Neither are fat people responsible for 60 million uninsured people, nor are fat people setting the health care costs and insurance premiums (except the ones who run the insurance companies, of course). The cost setters and distributors of health care in this country are in private industry. The government allows them to fleece the taxpayer with exuberant fees and costs. Naturally, they do not want to come out and blame everyone for the problem--namely, the stockholders who the companies must legally serve the interests of. No, it is the fault of smokers, fat people, etc.

If Paterson was serious about keeping down health care costs, he would propose a surcharge tax on walking canes and seeing eye dogs (someone has to pay for them). How about a tax on women who are pregnant and about to use a hospital to give birth? How about a tax on old people who are the ones that overwhelmingly use and drain our health care services in this country? No, these groups are not acceptable to hate, especially since the governor is a member of one of them. Nevertheless, it is just as legitimate of an argument, if cost is the primary worry. This is what happens when liberals use right-wing arguments to take other people's money. He cannot increase the income tax, particularly on the wealthy, without incurring the wrath of the owners of society. But no one cares about fat people. They are not attractive to the administers of popular culture. Again, taking their money is OK, if you claim to be doing it for their own good.

And what about all of the non-fat, non-diabetic people (presumably the majority of the population) that likes to drink the occasional soft drink? Well, I guess we are no better than fat people (a group I prefer to the someone with the mindset of David Paterson). But, hey, the Sulzbergers will not have to pay any extra money to their tax attorneys to dodge paying the bills.

As harsh as this sounds, Paterson's mentality is really no different than the average conservative who claims people who cannot pay should not have access to health care. It is like all of those same insurance companies who years ago said they should not have to legally pay for women's mammograms because it would cost them billions of dollars a year, or be forced to insure people like Governor Paterson (who is certainly a cost for the people who have to accommodate him). It was the exact mentality of those who claimed those who were considered the untermensch were not worthy of life, which Mr. Paterson would almost certainly have suffered the same fate at the hands of Germany's health care cost cutters had he lived in that country several decades ago. But some people are considered more equal than others. Today, fat children are obviously not acceptable members of our polity (or more convenient targets to make it possible for Paterson to balance his budget without angering anyone that can afford their own house maids and security). It is sad and unfortunate that we think this way as a culture. Most tragically, this hatred of fat plays into the self-hating body imagery, which helps precipitate the problems with youth culture starving itself into thinness and not infrequently an early death, but given time the Patersons of this world may find a way to surcharge them too (at least before they die).

Then again, if we had a national health care system, one paid for by the people who own the means of production, these arguments would not be necessary, which is not the fault of fat kids and Mountain Dew, either. I am sure the good people at the Insurance Institute of America are breathing a sigh of relief. Paterson is assuming a cost on their business and not making them pay for the system they created and maintain (the one that kills tens of thousands of people every year because they do not have health coverage).

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