Health Care

Taxes will make obesity even costlier

There are several chronic diseases, such as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, which are consistently linked to obesity. And since more and more Canadians are becoming obese each year, this is costing us billions of additional dollars in health care.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, on the basis of eight of these chronic diseases, the economic costs of obesity were estimated at $4.6 billion in 2008.

Some interest groups think they have found the solution: more taxes and regulation. They propose to tax sweetened beverages and fatty foods, regulate portion size, advertising, sales, etc.

Centuries from now, when the history of our era will be analyzed, I wonder how anthropologists will explain the infatuation with government coercion of so many groups purportedly aiming to do good.

These measures don't work because of a simple concept called substitution. There are thousands of different ways to ingest more calories. If it becomes more difficult to eat some foods, you can switch to others and even eat more of them.

And how are taxes supposed to encourage exercise?

Denmark recently cancelled its "fat tax" — the first in the world — just one year after it was implemented. It had created headaches for thousands of food producers and stores, and pushed Danish consumers to go shopping across the border in Germany.

Such taxes and regulations are deadweight on the economy. They create distortions and inefficiencies. Thousands of new bureaucrats are needed to manage them. You don't solve anything in this way; you simply make obesity even costlier.

David Gratzer, a Toronto physician, proposes a different approach in a recently released paper: let's create positive incentives in various walks of life and society to encourage people to adopt better eating and exercising habits.

For example, governments should schedule more physical education in schools to ensure better meals. Doctors, half of whom admit they are uneasy dealing with obesity, should be better prepared. Urban and suburban infrastructures can be better planned to encourage walking and exercise. Businesses could schedule exercise breaks and "walk and talk" meetings.

We should accept that obesity is a complex and multifaceted problem and that it cannot be tackled by crude measures to punish or restrict some behaviours. No policy will obtain results unless the targeted individuals are convinced of its usefulness and are personally willing to participle.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.

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