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Faced with high obesity rates and big-budget health care reform bills, some government officials are pushing a proposal to tax unhealthy foods and beverages. The aim is to subsidize expanded public health care with the new revenue. Do bureaucrats and politicians pushing for new sin taxes on junk food see a solution to healthcare that is just too big to fail?

Melissa Healy of the L.A. Times calls it “tough love for fat people” and says a tax on unhealthy foods “could be expected to lower consumption of those foods … it would also generate revenues that could be used to extend health insurance coverage to the uninsured.” Stephanie Condon of CBS News reports that administrators at the CDC agree: “A soda tax could plausibly pay for health care reform.”

In “The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations,” the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, has argued against the idea of taxing sins to pay for public services. If the government relies on taxes on unhealthy foods to pay for healthcare programs, how can it both fight obesity and maintain steady revenue? Sirico says it cannot: “Under a sin tax, the state finds itself professing to discourage certain behaviors while relying on their continuance as a source of revenue.” The government may say unhealthy eating is bad, but it would rely on it for tax money.

The problem of hypocrisy leaves aside the question of whether government is qualified to be the moral police officer of our pantries in the first place. Fr. Sirico points out that “the government's sense of morality, especially when it is influenced by excessive power, is often at war with traditional standards and common sense.” With food taxes, eating apple pie would become more of a punishable sin in the eyes of the government than cheating on a spouse.

Now even more hypocritical and morally disoriented than before, the government itself would get even fatter thanks to new food taxes. Healy writes that “a truly forceful ‘intervention’ would have to target pretty much all the fattening and nutritionally empty stuff we eat.” She is talking about the ability of the government to stop you from eating a donut. This is what Fr. Sirico means when he warns readers about the consequences of the government regulating our personal choices more and more: “It is a small but logical step for the state to institute a central plan governing all our behavior, even excluding behavior considered to be religious.” Granting government the power to determine what we should eat is a dangerous step toward ceding control over every part of our lives.

Taxes on unhealthy food would also fall heavily on the poor. Healy writes that taxes of 10-30 percent of the price of unhealthy food could both raise money and help the poor afford healthier choices by starting “a program of tax subsidies to encourage the purchase of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables.” As with funding healthcare through taxes on unhealthy food, this policy would be hypocritical. The government currently pays American farmers up to $15 billion every year to grow corn, rice, wheat, and sugar. These subsidies lower the price of animal feed and carbohydrates, making foods deriving from these sources artificially cheap. Rather than tax unhealthy foods paid for by taxpayer money, cut farm subsidies instead and alternatives such as fruits and vegetables will have a fair chance in the market, giving the poor real choices without breaking their budgets.

Obesity is a problem, but higher taxes are not the answer. Rather than punishing people, especially the poorest among us, for eating as they please, we need to restore a sense of responsibility to individuals for their own health decisions. Cutting back on the degree to which government will pay for our health care is one way to do this. Eliminating subsidies to farmers would also help by changing markets to encourage better eating choices. Changing our culture to stop celebrating overconsumption would also be a good thing. This is already happening, as Healy notes: “In many ways, the drumbeat of scientific evidence and the growing cultural stigma against obesity already are well underway – as any parent who has tried to bring birthday cupcakes into her child's classroom certainly knows.”

Fr. Sirico reminds us that real crusades against sin start in the “family, church, and school,” not in the government. Looking to public officials to direct our food consumption is a recipe for abuse. The same country that constitutionally bans the government from taking our homes, ought never to permit it to control our kitchens, either. 

Matt Cavedon was a communications associate at the Acton Institute.