Friday, October 18, 2013

Taxing Our Health, One Way or Another

Garbage in, garbage out.

It's a phrase used in the technology world to describe how the quality of computer code impacts the quality of what it produces.  Work hard and create good computer code, and the program supported by that code will generate good results.  The amount of effort you put into something will be reflected in what you get out of it.

Well, the same approach techies use to create the computer codes that, increasingly, run our world is the same approach we probably should be taking regarding our diets.  Our physical diets, that is.  What we eat.

After all, we are what we eat.

In other words, those of us who rely on a junky diet are likely going to end up with junky health.  And in our society, junky health usually affects more than just the patient.

New York City's Michael Bloomberg took a lot of flak for proposing that the city impose restrictions for sugary sodas, a move that was initially struck down in court, but will now be reviewed by the state's supreme court under an appeal by Bloomberg's administration.

It's easy to castigate Bloomberg for being a soda Nazi.  But what gets lost in all of the acrimony is his original goal:  to try and get people on welfare to eat healthier food.  Taxpayers in New York City pay exorbitant costs for their welfare recipients' healthcare issues caused by obesity.  In many low-income neighborhoods, the only clean, affordable restaurants are fast food joints.  So Bloomberg - acting, actually, on an idea posed in jest by the late, great Ed Koch - decided to wage war on super-sized sodas, since carbonated beverages are a primary source of unnecessary sugar.  Reduce sugar intake among welfare recipients, reduce obesity, and reduce the costs to taxpayers for obesity-related healthcare for welfare recipients.

Seen in that light, what's been called Bloomberg's soda "ban" isn't quite as draconian as his critics have assumed it to be.  It's still not very good public policy, which is the reason why former mayor Koch was only joking when he gave Bloomberg the idea several years ago.  But conservatives have been advocating for even more stringent measures against entitlements for years.  Perhaps conservatives should be careful what they wish for.

Meanwhile, last night in Mexico City, that country's legislature took a big step towards creating new taxes on sugary foods of all types, not just sodas.  Mexico's lower house of Congress has proposed a new 5% tax on packaged sweets that is likely to pass the country's upper house and become law.  And it will become law on top of an already-proposed one-peso-per-liter levy on sodas.  Once enacted, these new taxes will make Mexico one of the newest stars in the growing movement towards penalizing people for eating food that isn't good for them.

Still, is it really government's role to do that?  Sure, we penalize smokers, and we create legal restrictions for how much alcohol people should consume in public, but when it comes to foods we've come to consider a normal part of our diet, is having the government set limits for us going too far?

Let's think about this logically.  We know that processed foods are not healthy, and that too much sugar isn't, either.  We know that if we choose to eat foods that are unhealthy, we should exercise even more than we would if we lived on vegetables and raw fish.  Usually, however, one of the reasons we eat food that's bad for us - such as fast food, or other packaged, processed foods - is because we tend to be in a hurry, without the time to stop and prepare a dinner with fresh, natural foods from scratch.

Another problem is that a lot of food that isn't good for us sure tastes mighty good.  And the negative effects of such food don't show up right away.  Unhealthy eating has a cumulative effect on us, unless we're already diabetic and gorge on Ding Dongs.  Plus, most of us have jobs which keep us pretty sedentary.  It's not like the olden days, when we'd be out plowing or something.  We're putting garbage in, but garbage may not come out for quite a while.

But when it does, things can get expensive.  Many of us are upset with Obamacare and how it's been foisted upon our country, but it's hard to ignore the fact that, at least in part, Obamacare is a desperate attempt to try and address the growing healthcare needs Americans have.  It may not be a good solution at all, but Obamacare might not have been as necessary as some liberals claim it to be had all of us been eating better over the past 50 years.

Heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, cancers of all kinds:  the list of physical maladies that could be partially prevented by a good diet is pretty long.  And we know it!  We know that we can avoid some problems simply by eating more raw vegetables and less raw Ben & Jerry's.  But yet, few of us do.

I know I don't.  Ever since I moved away from New York City, where I walked everywhere, I've struggled with my diet.  Actually, when I lived on East 28th Street, I knew all of the delis and bodegas that daily replenished their stock of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk, and many evenings, that heavenly elixir - preceded by a bowl of corn flakes - was my dinner.  There were many things about bachelorhood in the city that I didn't like, but getting to make my own dinners wasn't one of them!  Nevertheless, I managed to keep a 29" waist simply by walking as much as urbanites do.

Down here in Texas, my downfall became breakfasts, with a Dunkin' Donuts right near my workplace tempting me daily like a vile seductress.  Then it was Shipley's Donuts, a local favorite here in Arlington.  And I'm paying for it still today, all these years later.  I not only have a 29" waist, I have one and a half of them!

Not that I'm bragging, mind you.  People like me can become a drain on our healthcare system, no matter who's paying for it.  And maybe, people like me should be held liable for choosing a dietary lifestyle that is not economically sustainable in the long run.  I think people who smoke should pay more for their health insurance, I think people who drink and drive should pay more for both their health and auto insurance, and frankly, I think people who don't eat right should pay more for their health insurance.

There are some people - a very small number of people - whose weight problems are more hereditary than anything else.  Or their weight gain is caused as a complication of some other health issue.  Not everybody who's fat or unhealthy has gotten that way by eating garbage.  But plenty of us are because we have.

What if the government prevented food stamp recipients from purchasing a certain amount of packaged foodstuffs?  What if the bulk of what they were allowed to purchase on their SNAP cards was fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat?  What if Crisco and Miracle Whip were banned?  Or Oreos, and Doritos?

How much of a difference is there between the government preventing SNAP users from procuring certain types of food, and the rest of us - for the same reason:  our health?  After all, even if you have great health insurance, that's not paying the entire bill for your healthcare.  Like it or not, our government subsidizes a lot of our healthcare, with or without Obamacare, from tax breaks to ambulance companies and retirement communities, to research grants to find cures for cancers, dementia, and other diseases that are impacted by poor diets.  We tax tobacco products heavily; why not the stuff that makes us fat?  And why not penalize those of us who otherwise might not have the willpower to eat properly on our own?

Too much government interference?  Too much big-government-invading-my-life? 

Probably so, but like they say:  garbage in, garbage out.

What our poor diets cause could eventually take the form of lots of things we won't like.  At least, if we don't change our own eating habits... on our own.

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