A few weeks ago, we commented on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s obesity conference in Washington, DC, reminding readers that government regulation will be a part of the obesity-fighting problem. Coinciding with the conference, the Urban Institute released a study that wiggled into a few news stories by claiming that a “junk food” tax could be an effective tool for combating obesity. But reporters failed to note something far more insidious in the study: The researchers also write that your cookie (or parts of it) may well wind up as a “toxic” chemical. We’re not making this up.
As they explain:
Furnishing an instructive model is the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which authorizes strict regulatory action (including prohibitions on manufacture and distribution) for products where “there is a reasonable basis to conclude” that they “will present an unreasonable risk of injury or health to the environment.”
…a substance is considered toxic if its unregulated use would cause harm to health that outweighs the substance’s anticipated benefits to society. Applying this balancing test to nutrition, a food substance might be considered toxic or “junk” if its nutritional benefits are outweighed by its contribution to obesity.
This would be a gross manipulation of federal law. The Toxic Substances Control Act regulates the use of chemicals in lead-based paint, indoor radon levels, and asbestos. In other words, actual health threats.
The study authors’ real goal is to draw analogies to the war on smoking, writing that “The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has noted that … tobacco would fit this definition of a toxic substance … and the same may be true for nutritionally worthless, obesity-inducing foods.”
But there’s one key flaw: Food isn’t tobacco (or radon, for that matter). There’s no such thing as second-hand soda (or potato chips, or cookies, or pizza). Taxing certain foods is simply punishing people for their personal food choices. Or as Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, might say, “nudging” us toward a government-approved lifestyle.
Trying to demonize fat, sugar, salt, or other culinary items as toxic substances will only serve to fuel even more scaremongering headlines. Of course, maybe that’s just what the food police have in mind.