Expressing his clear disappointment, he added, “Now we have to try to improve public health by other means.”
There are two points to make here. First, government can use taxation (and of course legislation) to influence behaviors — this is where the concept of the law as a teacher comes from.
But government is pretty poor at changing attitudes. Did Denmark succeed in raising the prices of fatty foods? Sure. But it didn’t succeed in changing the preferences of individual Danes.
“Danes switched to cheaper cheeses or traveled to neighboring countries such as Germany to stock up on butter, cheese and other foods containing more than 2.3 percent saturated fat,” the Chicago Sun-Times explains. “One German supermarket reported that half the cars in its parking lot last week had Danish license plates. The tax didn’t do much to stop plump and not-so-plump Danes from chowing down on cheese or sausage. The politicians did manage to enrage Denmark’s citizens by piling an extra tax on something Danes consider to be gifts of nature, namely butter.”
Danes are no more obese than Americans, and economists say that in the U.S., 9.1 percent of all health care costs are obesity-related. It’s a serious problem.
Efforts such as Tyler’s Fit City Challenge are more effective precisely because they’re more personal. We can best fight obesity by coming alongside a friend or a co-worker, not by supporting punitive, impersonal taxes on butter and bacon.
A second lesson to be drawn from Denmark is that once a new revenue stream is opened for government, it can be hard to cut off the flow. The Danish government liked the estimated $216 million raised in that first year by the fat tax. And officials say they need the revenue, so while the tax is repealed, income taxes will be raised to compensate for the “loss.”
That’s an important lesson as we near the “fiscal cliff” nationally, and as the Texas Legislature prepares to address budget shortfalls. A new tax is rarely a temporary measure.