A Junk Food Tax to Reverse the Shame Game

Can new public health initiatives like a junk food tax put the burden on the unhealthy food industry and lighten your body-image baggage?

The Lancet has a new four-part series about "the global obesity pandemic," including a bunch of science-based recommendations about what public health officials need to do to create healthier environments for all of us.

Quick caveat: Regular readers of this blog know that I subscribe to the Health at Every Size theory, where we don't necessarily view your weight as a symptom of a disease (after all, new studies show that 20 percent of obese people are perfectly healthy). So I get nervous when researchers talk about the "global obesity pandemic" or the "war on obesity" because it often ends up sounding a lot like a war on obese people. Fat shaming, discrimination, stigma and bad times ensue. 

But I'm nodding along with these scientists' ideas that boil down to: A 10 percent tax on unhealthy food (like the sugary beverage tax proposed in New York State and defeated due to industry pressure); better nutrition labeling on food -- like a red, yellow, green stoplight system so you'd know whether something was unhealthy, just okay, or super healthy, and; stricter regulations on how junk food is advertised to kids -- so they don't start craving Cocoa Puffs and KFC straight out of the womb.

Why do I like these ideas? Because nothing in there is about blaming the person or body shaming. As Jane Brody writes in her New York Times column on the new research, "If you have gained a lot of unwanted pounds at any time during the last 30-odd years, you may be relieved to know that you are probably not to blame. At least not entirely."

Yes, of course, personal responsibility comes into play. All the Surgeon General warnings in the world won't get Americans to stop smoking completely, because people are imperfect, irresponsible creatures and smoking can look sexy as hell. (Or so I've been told. Dear children readers: Do not smoke.) 

But we've basically accepted that the tobacco industry spent fifty years selling us a pack of killer lies. Whenever somebody born before 1960 gets lung cancer, people say, "well we didn't know back then -- they didn't tell us smoking was so dangerous!"

In contrast, the fast food industry has been blasting us nonstop with ads for wildly unhealthy (yet seductively inexpensive and delicious) food for decades unchecked... and yet we beat ourselves up when we find it impossible to walk past a Cinnabon pumping smells scientifically formulated to make our mouths water. We assume we're eating that cinnamon roll because we're fat failures with no willpower -- when in fact, a multi-billion dollar industry has been conspiring against us, feeding us fat and sugar along with a whopping side dish of guilt.

I'm not all that concerned about whether Americans lose weight as a result of a junk food tax or the other ideas The Lancet authors propose -- though of course, I hope we experience lower rates of disease and an improved quality of life. I'd like to see these initiatives go hand in hand with a broader definition of health -- one where we consider other markers (like blood pressure, cholesterol, physical stamina, and... wait for it... mental wellbeing) along with, or even in lieu of, weight.

I'm happy to get on the same page with the anti-obesity folks when it comes to building a culture where it's easier to sustain healthy lifestyle habits because we aren't forcefed marketing and misinformation at every turn. Taxing and regulating unhealthy foods puts the responsibility for our current health crisis square on the shoulders of the industry that created it -- not on the victims we usually love to blame.

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