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Tell the doctors that junk food already is taxed

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Whatever good it might do for the collective waistline, the Ontario Medical Association's latest campaign against obesity is a prescription for an overweight and overbearing nanny state.

No doubt the physicians mean well. Indeed, their warnings about the dangers of an unhealthy diet packed with empty calories should be heeded. Given the unacceptably high levels of obesity in Canada, concerted action to deal with it is justifiable. But this is one case where what the doctor ordered goes too far.

Putting a special tax on chips, pop and other sugary or fatty foods, as the doctors association advocates, is unreasonably intrusive, condescending and of unproven value in fighting obesity. Just as objectionable is the doctors' proposal to dissuade people from buying certain foods by slapping graphic photographs of damaged livers or ulcerated feet on product packages.

Governments should, in general, impose taxes to raise revenues they need for essential public services and programs, not to punish individuals or coerce them into behaving in a certain way. The doctors' basic premise, in this regard, is wrong.

Yes, we have a "sin" tax on tobacco, and the doctors association believes the hardball tactics governments used to cut smoking rates should be extended to junk food. But they fail to recognize tobacco is very different from chocolate. Tobacco contains the stimulant nicotine, one of the most highly addictive substances known to humans. Even when used as their manufacturers intend, cigarettes cause serious, life-threatening health problems.

A candy bar is different, especially if consumed sparingly and as part of a balanced diet. And that's one of the biggest flaws in the doctors' proposal. Their cry for higher taxes and unpleasant packaging makes no distinction between the couch potato who devours five bags of chips and a litre of pop a night, and the marathon runner who, once a month, washes down a cookie with a glass of cola.

Besides, there is already a "fat tax," though it goes by another name. Virtually everything the doctors consider junk food is already taxed -- unlike the basic, unprocessed food they would have us eat. Ontario consumers pay no tax for general groceries -- a bunch of carrots or a carton of milk, for instance. They do pay a 13 per cent harmonized sales tax for a bag of chips, tin of pop or chocolate bar. If that tax hasn't discouraged enough people to limit their intake of junk food, how high would it have to climb before it would become a real barrier for consumers? And is the goal really to make some of life's simple pleasures unaffordable as well as socially unacceptable?

Surely food, even junk food, is but one factor in causing obesity. Sedentary lifestyles that discourage physical activity can produce people who eat wisely but are still overweight. Will the doctors' next suggestion be to stick photographs of diseased hearts on television and computer screens?

We welcome the doctors association's initiative to educate people about the health risks that come from eating too many sugary or fatty foods. Even drinking too much fruit juice, as the physicians point out, can be unhealthy, and it's important to know this.

But keep a sense of proportion. And keep the focus on educating consumers. The labelling on food packages that lists a product's ingredients provides useful information and helps people make intelligent decisions. Perhaps this type of information should be more prominent or comprehensive.

Doctors are great when they use scalpels. But watch out when they reach for the sledgehammer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2012 A11

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