Alberto Mingardi  

Regulating your diet

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Food taxes are apparently proliferating, all over Europe. Finland introduced taxes on sugared products; France now has a special tax on all soft drinks and Hungary increased taxes on food with high fat, sugar and salt content.

The trailblazers on this road were, rather ironically, the Danes. Denmark introduced a "fat tax", a tariff on saturated fats, in 2011. The world's first fat tax had rather perverse, albeit not unforeseeable, effects. As the Economist reported, "a study found 48% of Danes doing some cross-border shopping".

The blowback was so apparent that politicians did something they never easily do: in 2012 they rolled back the very tax they themselves had introduced.

The University of Copenhagen has released a study that somehow critically assesses such a decision. The authors maintain that the tax served the designed purpose, in terms of reduced fat consumption. But apparently they focused on consumption merely of oils, butter and margarine, whereas of course the tax had far a wider impact. On the "EU Food Policy," a gated website and magazine for those interested in debates surrounding food policy and the food industry, my colleague Massimiliano Trovato so expressed his skepticism on those findings:
"Bottom line: focusing on the consumption of a few given products, failing to measure the policy-induced substitution and the overall impact on dietary habits, will hardly advance our understanding of how effectively fat taxes work. Health-related effects remain undetermined, while economic consequences came through loud and clear."

The point Massimiliano makes is that the math, so to say, of food taxes in term of health-related output is very difficult to calculate. That was always my impression too: diet is hardly the only factor of risk affecting an individual's health and life.

On a different note, if we could just "nudge" people to move in the direction of safer food consumption, why shouldn't we? Don Boudreaux, quoted here by Bryan Caplan, explained persuasively that "nudging" is actually old fashioned coercion right from the outset.

A society stays together because of some collectively shared taboos. Can we even imagine a free society, in which the word 'free' maintains some intelligible meaning, that doesn't share the taboo that peoples' diets shouldn't be regulated from the government?

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Dan S writes:

Here is an area where I depart from libertarians, and it's based on personal experience.

Near the end of high school and then all throughout college, I was overweight (at my heaviest about 210 lb and I'm 5'9"). I really tried a bunch of times to lose weight, but getting weight to fall off and stay off was like pulling teeth. It sometimes felt like my body simply wanted to be a certain weight and would not budge for me. Now, during this time I existed in a mostly all-you-can-eat food environment, first in dining halls, and then in a fraternity house. Doing any kind of portion control was mentally difficult, something that had to be actively considered with each meal, and turning down that dessert that's just sitting right there begging me to eat it was tough.

Flash forward, I graduate from college and take a job in NYC. Suddenly I've switched to an eating paradigm where I'm paying for individual portions of food, AND it's much easier for me to have a salad or something healthy because those options are more convenient in Manhattan. And in a matter of months, the weight just melted off of me, without me even putting in much effort! I think I lost something like 45 pounds without trying, way more than I ever did when I was actively trying. Oh the irony!

The lesson I took away from the whole episode is that behavioral nudges like that matter a lot, and I can promise you that when I'm much more satisfied with the situation I'm in now than I was back when I could exercise my "freedom" to stuff my face. I think your average person would feel the same way and would welcome behavioral nudges along that line.

This has run on longer than I thought it would, so I'll just wrap up with a hypothetical: do you think a recovering heroin addict would be happier in a city with heroin dealers tempting him on every corner, or one where they were not there? And if you say "well he should be indifferent between the two, or if anything prefer the heroin city because it expands his budget set. If he does the heroin then he obviously likes heroin more than he likes being clean," then I don't think we're going to reach agreement on that, but I think the vast majority of people would view it my way.

To Dan S: It looks like the fat was caused by subsidies.

Returning to the Danish experiment ... It was obviously based on a quote from a famous Dane: "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt."

MingoV writes:

@Dan S: There was no nudging involved in your scenario. Going from a prepaid smorgasbord to buying individual food items has nothing to do with nudging. Your scenario is like working for a tobacco company and buying cigarettes for $1.50 a pack with an employee discount and then working elsewhere and paying $4.00 a pack. Most people would smoke less; no nudging involved.

Nudging could have been applied in the smorgasbord scenario by putting "health-promoting" foods in front and "health-damaging" foods in back. Other nudging methods include using smaller serving spoons and smaller portions for "health-damaging" items, reducing beverage dispenser flow rates for sugary drinks, putting hi-cal desserts in an inconvenient location, etc.

Dan S writes:

@MingoV and Joseph

I'm not suggesting that the gov't or a cafeteria was responsible for the weight loss. My point is that the experience taught me how relatively subtle changes in the way food was available to me affected my weight almost effortlessly, while in the old environment I had such a hard time while I was even trying. And I wasn't crying myself to sleep at night for lack of unhealthy food. On the contrary I was thrilled, and I think a lot of other overweight people would be as well in the same scenario, and wouldn't view policies such as a tax on sugar and saturated fats as being an affront to their basic liberties, though I guess I can't argue with Sarah Palin.

Tom West writes:

Your scenario is like working for a tobacco company and buying cigarettes for $1.50 a pack with an employee discount and then working elsewhere and paying $4.00 a pack. Most people would smoke less; no nudging involved.

How is that *not* nudging? A nudge is merely changing the environment to make a certain course of action more attractive. We are all being nudged thousands of times day towards things that fulfill various goals - corporate, government, family, and otherwise.

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