Why Australia’s “sin tax” proposal misses the mark

Earlier this week I told you about the impressive results of Mexico’s soda tax. And I mentioned a similar proposal in Australia. Today I want to talk a little more about why I think it misses the mark (despite being well-intentioned). But first, a little background on the idea being tossed around Down Under.

After seeing how much of an effect soda taxes in Mexico and other places have had on sugary drink consumption, some Australian researchers decided to take it a step further. They want to tax not just sugar-sweetened beverages, but also a variety of foods they deem “unhealthy.” While I am a big fan of disincentivizing poor food choices with taxes, Australia’s proposal is not as cut and dried as it would seem. That’s because the definition of what’s healthy varies widely depending on who you ask.

This Australian group wants to tax sugar, salt, and fat. And if you’ve been with me for a while, you know I can only get behind one of those.

Sugar is in a category all its own. Salt, in the right amounts, isn’t bad for us. And the right fats are a health food. So who decides which fat gets a tax and which one gets the seal of approval? And who decides what level of salt meets the taxable threshold?

When people start trying to impose draconian nutrition rules like these, bogus science starts popping up from disingenuous groups who are only out to help themselves — not the general population.

Sugar is the only item on this list that has no place in the diet. Which is why taxing it has become so popular. The proposed UK graduated tax on sugar-containing soft drinks, for instance, could significantly reduce obesity, diabetes, and dental cavities.

As I mentioned before, researchers have estimated that Mexico’s 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could prevent 200,000 cases of diabetes and 20,000 deaths, all while saving Mexicans a billion dollars over 10 years.

According to the Australian group’s calculations, the sugar tax would produce the largest estimated health gain, followed by the salt tax, and the saturated-fat tax. The group also proposes subsidizing healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables.

It’s next to impossible to ignore the major benefits — both from a financial and public health perspective — that could be gained if the United States introduced taxes and subsidies that target unhealthy foods while promoting healthier options.

If this administration is truly seeking to reduce healthcare costs, a “tax and subsidy” strategy would be far more effective than wiping out entitlements, dismantling Medicare as we know it, and trashing the Affordable Healthcare Act. Which is probably why the “repeal and replace” plan failed…Members of both parties could easily that it wasn’t going to reduce (expensive) disease.

The problem with healthcare reform — other than the obvious, that no one involved wants to lose their slice of this enormous a pie — is that we tend to go after the wrong culprits. The system isn’t that broken. It’s how we use and maintain it that is broken.

Taxes on unhealthy choices and subsidies for health-promoting ones would go a long way towards changing what’s broken, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The one thing I hope we can agree on is that sugar kills. It needs to be taxed so that people learn to avoid it. There needs to be a bigger conversation about its dangers, including warning labels like we see on cigarettes.

And we NEED to stop subsidizing sugar. The billions we spend keeping the sugar industry afloat would be spent better on health-promoting industries. Like the organic farming industry, which, if subsidized, would make healthier foods cheaper and more readily available to all Americans.