Taxing the Fat is Taxing the Poor
by Charles Lemos, Sat Sep 12, 2009 at 05:39:27 PM EDT
Over at the Huffington Post, John Ridley, a writer for Esquire and Time magazines, has written an article on the problem of obesity and the spiraling healthcare costs associated with obesity. He writes:
Obese people in America now outnumber the merely fat. The National Center for Health Statistics reported this year that more than 34 percent of Americans are obese, compared to 32.7 percent who are "just" overweight. Just under 6 percent are "extremely" obese. The bottom line is that we're a slovenly lot and getting more so by the year.
The financial hit on health care is pretty staggering. A study by the Center for Disease Control released at their first ever "Fat Summit" in July finds:
The prevalence of obesity rose 37% between 1998 and 2006, and medical costs climbed to about 9.1% of all U.S. medical costs.
Obese people spent 42% more than people of normal weight on medical costs in 2006.
With all the talk -- and screaming and gun-toting -- that's going on around the health care reform debate, maybe the answer as to how to pay for it is orbiting our ever-expanding guts.
A tax on the fat. If you're out of shape, you've got to carry your weight, so to speak.
He goes on to declare obesity a "lifestyle choice." Perhaps that's the case if poverty is a lifestyle choice for obesity in the United States (and elsewhere) is highly correlated with poverty. To tax the fat, as Mr. Ridley suggests, is to tax the poor. The suggestion is moronic and speaks to a profound detachment from if not ignorance of the plight of the poor and our widening social inequality.
While obesity rates are climbing among all ages, races and incomes, evidence compiled by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that the poor are more likely to be overweight or obese than wealthier Americans.
In Seattle nearly 22 percent of adults living in households with incomes of less than $15,000 a year are obese, compared with almost 15 percent in homes pulling in $50,000 a year or more, according to an analysis by Public Health - Seattle & King County of survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Solving the obesity problem in the United States requires a redressing of our corn policy. The United States is the world's largest producer and exporter of corn, accounting for more than 40 percent of global production and nearly 60 percent of all exports. And corn is highly subsidized. Between 1995 and 2003, federal corn subsidies totaled $37.3 billion averaging $4.6 billion per annum. Since then, the annual corn subsidy has doubled to $9.0 billion. These government subsidies are creating a corn monoculture that is imperiling our health. As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, so bluntly put it: "Were subsidizing obesity."
Mr. Pollen noted:
Government farm programs, once designed to limit production and support prices (and therefore farmers), were quietly rejiggered to increase production and drive down prices. Put another way, instead of supporting farmers, during the Nixon administration the government began supporting corn at the expense of farmers. Corn, already the recipient of a biological subsidy in the form of synthetic nitrogen, would now receive an economic subsidy too, ensuring its final triumph over the land and the food system.
The effect of all this cheap corn is simply this: the annual per-capita consumption of caloric sweeteners has increased by 40 pounds in the last 40 years, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) accounts for 81% of the 83 additional calories the average American consumes each day from sweeteners alone.
But a concurrent problem in tackling obesity is social inequality. It is not a coincidence that obesity rates began to rise as real wages began to stagnate. Between 1985 and 2000, the cost of fruits and vegetables shot up nearly 120 percent, while the price tags on soft drinks, fats, sugars and sweets increased by less than 50 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Simply put a healthy diet is increasingly beyond the reach of the poor.
From a Deseret News article published in May 2008:
"The food crisis will make obesity and attendant diabetes even more rampant," said University of Washington epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski. "Fruits, vegetables and fish are becoming luxury goods completely out of reach of many people. Consumption of cheap food will only grow.
"Obesity is the toxic consequence of a failing economy."
While more people from every economic background are becoming obese around the world, the poor are still outpacing the better-off.
A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that women in poverty were roughly 50 percent more likely to be obese than those with higher socioeconomic status.
In U.S. households making less than $15,000 a year, 31 percent of the women are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In households with more than $50,000 annually, 17 percent are obese.
University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Shiriki Kumanyika and other investigators found that poor 15- to 17-year-olds -- black or white, male or female -- were 50 percent more likely to carry excessive poundage than nonpoor teens.
And a study by Drewnowski last year showed that obesity rates in poor Seattle neighborhoods were 600 percent greater than in rich areas.
Poor people frequently live in "food deserts" -- neighborhoods with few supermarkets. They rely on corner stores and convenience marts for groceries, said Carey Morgan, director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
These are great places to buy chips and soda, not so good for asparagus.
Concentrating on filling their stomachs, poor, hungry people go for high-fat, high-sugar foods. "They're not thinking about health -- just getting through the day," said Mariana Chilton, a hunger expert at the Drexel University School of Public Health, and principal investigator for the Philadelphia GROW Project, which deals with nutrition and physical development among poor children.
Derek Felton, a community organizer with the Coalition Against Hunger and a former poor, obese person, agreed.
"I was the oldest of seven, with a lifetime of no breakfasts to eat," said Felton, who is 5-foot-9 and went from 247 pounds to 185. "When we had the chance to eat, we ate white bread to feel full."
All that corner-store processed food is relatively inexpensive -- artificially so. Researchers say that many junk foods contain high-fructose corn syrup, made from government-subsidized corn crops. Federal help keeps the cost of syrup-containing foods such as sodas, fries and even burgers down. Drewnowski said that healthful, unsubsidized foods like spinach cost five times more per calorie to produce, thus driving up the price.
Food stamps are supposed to help. But Chilton's research shows that the allotments families in Philadelphia receive are not accounting for higher food prices.
As a result, families often run out of food stamps by the second or third week of the month, Chilton said.
The hunger can be excruciating, said Gaines, who lets her three children under age 4 eat whatever food is left after the stamps are gone.
It makes her all the more voracious at the beginning of each month, when the new stamps arrive.
"You go without eating, then gorge," Gaines said. "Then you go to sleep with a full stomach. That's how the weight picks up."
It works that way for lots of people. And with the current food inflation, even cheap foods are getting more expensive.
"What choices can poor people afford now?" asked Stella Volpe, a nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing. "Will their diets get even worse, and will hard times contribute to more obesity?"
There is a correlation between poverty and obesity in the United States. Fixing the latter means tackling the former.