Is it really ten years since the Total Overhaul Of Flab And Taxation (TOOFAT) Act of 2004 became law? I didn’t realize so much time had passed until my nine-year-old asked for help with an essay about the years before Calorie Czar Kelly Brownell saved us from ourselves.
Brownell first popularized the idea of a “Twinkie Tax”–back when you could still buy Twinkies. He was a scientific advisor to a group set up by President Nader, called the Center for Science in the Public Interest. People used to call them the “food police”–back before there actually were Food Police.
In those early years, Brownell lacked the vision to see past creme-filled sponge cakes to the fat-tax promised land of buttered popcorn, guacamole, and pizza. That, history shows, is where the real money was. He co-wrote a paper in 2000 with CSPI co-founder Michael Jacobson, suggesting “small taxes on soft drinks and snack foods.” How far we’ve come.
Three years later, in his 2003 book Food Fight, Brownell advocated “large snack taxes (in the range of 5 to 10 percent)” in order to “decrease consumption of unhealthy foods.” He even hinted that support would be highest “for taxes with funds earmarked for children.” Kelly Brownell knew us well.
I hardly noticed anything during the first two years after TOOFAT became law. An extra nickel for a can of soda, a twenty-cent tax on a pound of butter, a dime more for a cheese Danish. Big deal. My wife and I were perfectly healthy anyway, and we figured the money was going to teach fat slobs how to exercise. Maybe, we thought, they’d also learn how to visit a buffet without packing an overnight bag. We didn’t notice anyone slimming down, but Kelly Brownell meant well.
Two thousand six and 2007 were tougher to handle, as our grocery bills became less predictable. Congress learned to use TOOFAT taxes to raise money for anything and everything. Need a new stealth bomber? Raise the potato-chip tax. Potholes need repairing? We’d all just have to pay more for milk.
By 2008, every delicious food had been so demonized that no career-minded politician would dare oppose a new TOOFAT target.
Then Kelly Brownell added restaurants, stadium concessions, and ice-cream shops to the revenue stream. This was about the time New York lawmaker Felix Ortiz and California state Senator Deborah Ortiz began showing up on movie screens between the Coming Attractions. “Team Ortiz” had pioneered fat-taxes and soft drink bans in their home states back in 2003. “We Want You,” they would say, “to eat rice cakes and drink organic bottled water.” Felix would warn that the price of movie nachos was about to go up (again), and Deborah would remind kids attending Harry Potter and the Order of Celery Sticks that Milk Duds were now rated “R.”
The kids weren’t getting any slimmer, but Team Ortiz did its best.
Eventually, we stopped paying attention to the weekly Food Price Index. We knew that tofu and broccoli were cheaper than everything we liked to eat. Sure, we had trouble adjusting. Up was down. Good was bad. The cost of Halloween candy nearly bankrupted us.
“Dad,” my three munchkins would ask, “why do we have to share one order of French fries?”
“Because it costs ten dollars,” I’d whisper. “Now sit still while I pour you each a thimble of Diet Sprite.”
I never understood why a fat-free, calorie-free drink needed extra taxes, but I suppose we can’t make exceptions for innocent-looking sodas. Carbonation equals obesity. That’s what Kelly Brownell always said.
We still weren’t slimming down, but over time I got used to these changes. We all did.
Looking back, it’s amazing how Americans changed their eating behaviors in just ten years. It helped when Congress expanded TOOFAT to cover all high-calorie foods and beverages. I never liked the taste of beer anyway.