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Slapping a tax on junk food is still a bad idea

Mockup of graphic warning label on juice box from the Ontario Medical Association

The Ontario Medical Association's call to slap hot fudge and French fries with a so-called fat tax is a regressive measure that will hurt consumers without any provable benefit. The association is also off-base with its proposal to put graphic photos of diseased organs and limbs on junk food packaging. While the association's aim of raising awareness is laudable, food is not tobacco and shouldn't be treated as an inherently harmful substance.

This is not the first time the call for a tax on junk food has been heard in Canada, and some countries have indeed adopted the measure to combat obesity. What is new this time is the OMA's uncorroborated claim that, thanks to the success of graphic labels and higher taxes on packs of cigarettes in reducing tobacco consumption, society is now more tolerant of the idea of a similarly coercive government tactic to reduce the intake of foods high in fats and calories.

The essential flaw in that thinking is that, while tobacco is a noxious substance that is not required to sustain life, food is a necessity that is neither inherently good nor bad for you. The current mania for healthy foods high in antioxidants and friendly bacteria is the flip side of the wrong-headed notion that a potato chip or a slice of pizza is an edible form of death. Food is food, and the only proven road to good health is a combination of moderation and exercise. A surtax on foods identified as "junk" would be a punishing measure that would hurt busy families that enjoy the odd pizza night, and it would be especially hard on low-income earners who do not need to see their food bills rise. Including an image of the ulcerated foot of an infant on juice boxes merely adds insult to the injury of bad policy.

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Yes, obesity is on the rise in Canada, and it is a great concern that costs, according to the OMA, $2-billion annually in Ontario alone when it leads to Type 2 diabetes, heart or liver problems, or chronic kidney diseases. There is no doubt that people at risk of these problems should pay attention to their diets, and the OMA is right to remind people that the excessive consumption of empty calories is a bad idea. But the notion that legislators can engineer a solution to obesity through coercive measures is no less unsettling, and no less of a dangerous overreach, today than it was five years ago. Government still has no place in the pantries of the nation.

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