10 Apr 2011

Taxing Unhealthy Things Not about Punishment – Its About Personal Responsibility

Just for complete disclosure…this article was stimulated by one published by Solomon Kleinsmith a few days ago.

I am a believer that we should pay our way for what you use or do in a society. Personal responsibility and accountability is critical to the success or our society. For me this is not in conflict with believing that a society should also help take care of those less fortunate…so I also believe in some socialism for the greater good. I say this to give context to the following…

Smokers, Drinkers, Drug Abusers, Obese people all choose to live lives that “externalize” upon society much of their costs to live the lives they choose. That truly is just a fact. I understand that genetics and upbringing play a significant role in a person’s ability to make good choices… but personal responsibility is much too important to just completely excuse away. We can make some accommodations for this with programs supporting those who are struggling to make good choices.

Smokers and drinkers both make offsetting payments back to society in the form of taxes. Some studies show that society actually profits from smokers (CLICK HERE for one such example). I haven’t seen any articles on what the financial status might be for drinkers. Hopefully the study on smokers is reasonably accurate and that the status on drinkers is about the same…if not, the taxes on both should be raised.

Drug abusers…society takes a mostly non-financial punishment approach to deal with these people who abuse drugs. This approach actually increases the costs to society when we jail so many. I am for legalizing marijuana and taxing it enough to offset the costs that the use of it, as well as other abused drugs, impose upon society. One key condition to this…can honest studies be done on the question of whether marijuana use leads to abuse of more dangerous drugs? If honest studies show that it doesn’t, then legalize and tax it.

Now for the obese…where do they make offsetting payments to society? There is an onslaught of obesity issues coming at us in our country. I am for both added taxes on the worst of the food products that clearly contribute to obesity, as well as higher health insurance costs for the obese. The reality is that higher costs are already in place for private sector health insurance. So it is just the government funded health insurance that needs to catch up with the business world. There won’t be a perfect or even near perfect way of doing this; but there are ways to take a reasonable approach that will create some offsetting charges to the most egregiously offending obese people and unhealthy products.

This isn’t about punishment…it is about personal responsibility and accountability.

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This centrist community blogger has chosen not to reveal much about themselves in their bio – as is their right.
This centrist community blogger has chosen not to reveal much about themselves in their bio – as is their right.

0 thoughts on “Taxing Unhealthy Things Not about Punishment – Its About Personal Responsibility”

  1. Smokers, Drinkers, Drug Abusers, Obese people all choose to live lives that “externalize” upon society much of their costs to live the lives they choose. That truly is just a fact.

    Just as it is truly just a fact that MOST people undertake some behaviors that externalize their costs on society in some way. But only when they come for YOUR bad habit or free-riding choice will this light bulb go on. Open this Pandora’s box any further and it will never be closed. Our every activity will be scrutinized for possible “externalities’ that cost the rest of us who “behave properly” on that matter.

    What you’re talking about will lead to an eventual dismantling of the social contract under which we sort of mind our own business about other people’s choices instead of bitching about the ones we don’t like.

    Just wait until couples who don’t have children start complaining AS A GROUP about families “externalizing” their costs. Take care to notice that I’m not saying that would be a fair argument. I’m saying that you’re opening the can of worms for all sorts of arguments like this to be made . . . various special interests taking narrow views about aspects of civil society in which they happen to get the short end of the stick. If you think the effort you advocate here can be stopped after narrowly targeting folks from groups that are easily demonized, you will eventually find out that you are mistaken, I promise you.

    By the way, I’ve had time to look further into the data on lifetime healthcare costs, because I couldn’t remember whether it was fat people or smokers who incurred lower costs than “normal” people. It’s smokers. Since smokers pay higher taxes and then die sooner, under your reasoning, they deserve a discount. Healthy people are taking a free ride on their dime.

    This isn’t about punishment…it is about personal responsibility and accountability.

    Always an easy thing to say when you aren’t the one being held accountable. Prepare to be judged and held accountable. Your day will come. I’m sure you’ll disgaree. And that’s OK. But a decade or so from now, when we have headed too far down this path to go back, and are all being ever-more scrutinized for faults in what used to be private behavior, remember that I tried to warn you.

    1. I agree that addressing these issues puts on a “slippery slope” where decisions on what is best as to balancing individual issues with society issues will need to be carefully thought through. However, I don’t think that means we should avoid or even mostly avoid the issues all together. Sometimes there just isn’t a near-perfect uncomplicated uncontroversial solution to an important issue but there is always a “best solution”. That is what needs to be found with issues like this and typically the “best solution” is found through a series of decisions that improve upon earlier decisions.

      Families externalizing costs…yes this exists, but society has decided procreation of our spieces and our country is a good thing. Also, financially we need working age people to be paying taxes and we won’t have working age people unless they are part of family’s first. Immigraton already heavily subsidizes the shortfall in the USA birth rate.

      Smokers…yes I agree that society may be profiting financially from smokers. My blog and the article I attached says that. The higher taxes on tobacco as compared to other products are a key reason for that status. But the profit isn’t much and the analysis is tough to be precise with and some studies say that society is still losing…thus I figure we may be at a break even point. Which is appropriate in my opinion.

      I’d like our society to make our best efforts at accomplishing a financial breakeven status for Drinking, Drug Abuse and Obesity. If there are other serious externalizations of individual costs on society in a significantly massive manner…I think these too should be carefull thought through to see if there is a practicle solution…nothing else comes to mind for me.

      I don’t see any of this as demonization…but I do see that what I am suggesting does infer criticism. My desire is that the criticism be focused upon the actions and not people.

      1. I am curious, what determines when a given “externalized” cost becomes tax-worthy?

        As a responsible adult if I partake in a single drink at a bar and get a cab ride home I am neither likely to be a danger to anyone on the road, nor am I likely to become an alcoholic (unless this were perhaps a nightly pattern, but setting that aside…). I do pay an extra tax on that drink for what? Am I subsidizing someone else’s binge drinking or hospitalization due to the same?

        Again, as a responsible adult I partake in a nice cigar once or twice a year in the comfort of my own home / yard / property. This action is unlikely to cause me to die significantly sooner than I would have, nor (if I’m considerate of where I smoke) am I impacting the health of others, and yet I pay an incredibly high tax on that tobacco. Who decided that one or two cigars a year was a taxable externalization as opposed to someone who chain smokes 10 packs a day?

        Too much sodium is unhealthy and the amount of sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) has been given a lot of credit for our obesity epidemic in the U.S. Perhaps we need to up the taxes on items that use salt and high fructose corn syrup, or more generally highly processed foods (like Wonder bread and anything from a vending machine).

        Just yesterday I read a Men’s Health article that stated a study of sitting and heart disease concluded that as an independent risk factor (meaning just this factor alone) sitting more than 60% of your day will increase your chances of heart disease and heart attack by 54%. That includes people who exercise regularly and eat well as well as those who life a more sedentary lifestyle. If sitting long hours (which many of us do in front of computers for our jobs) is likely to cause heart disease, then perhaps there should be some taxes built into the manufacture of TVs and computers and other devices whose use encourages us to sit to offset the cost of all those people who will end up in the hospital due to heart disease.

        It’s not too hard to imagine ending up in a state similar to the fictional one of Demolition Man where “anything bad for you is illegal.” A silly movie? Yes, of course. Impossible to believe? Not really if we honestly think taxing risk factors is an appropriate way to deal with people who abuse those factors (for any reason).

        I agree with Leonidas that using taxes as a broad brush to enforce personal responsibility is not as useful a social reform tool fines and education. Taxes under the guise of personal responsibility and social reform is a good way to increase revenues by demonizing a swath of the populace. You and I don’t feel bad taxing drug dealers extra high amounts, but if the cost of our groceries shot up because half the ingredients have been shown to increase obesity under normal consumption then we’d probably be pretty pissed.

        One thing I believe is that government should generally not be granted more power. Giving government the power to tax more and higher amounts is equivalent to giving them more power.

        People need to be taught and convinced why personal responsibility is not only in their best interest but in the interest of society as a whole. Strong-arming is not usually a tactic that works very well.

        1. The question you start your blog with can be a tough one…especially if we go to far. Thus the “slippery slope” that needs carefully managed.

          I understand a logical extension of what I am suggesting would include your example of “sitting”. However, I would call that one way down the slippery slope and would not address it. As for the salt and sugar content in food…that may be something rational as our food industry has developed in a way where healthy food costs more than unhealthy food. Thus I like the idea of getting the cost of “discretionay” unhealthy food like pop, candy, junk food etc. to be higher. Some form of a tax is probably the only way to do it and the long term benefit will be to lower the costs of healthy food as there production volume goes up.

          I too have drinks and eat unhealthy foods and like you I do them in such moderation that I think it has very little affect upon my health and thus I personally externalize little if any costs to the rest of society. EXCEPT…by me buying these products I do help support there existence. I would guess that people like you and me are far more important to the profitability of these types of products than those who abuse them…thus we are enabling costly societal behavour and I am ok with paying my share of those costs.

          I am trying to take a look at these issues with a cost to society focus where each individual should be responsible and pay their own way. I do realize that we should not try and can not succeed at getting to perfection down to the last dollar. It has to stay rational and understandable.

          1. Perhaps my suggestion in no so many words is to simply educate ourselves and our youth to make healthy, sustainable choices, not to legislate those choices. We’ll never fully accept what is thrust upon us unless we understand it and its purpose.

  2. Taxes and personal responsibilty don’t mix well. Fines and personal responsibility do. You fine and punish a drunk driver, not someone for having a drink who might become a drunk driver. You fine someone for smoking in a non smoking zone for their behavior not by taxing them for buying a pack of cigarettes or a cigar which they might not even be the one who smokes. Taxes are a poor way to try to impose personal responsibility.

    1. Sure they do… they’re just called usage taxes and not sin taxes. I’m against taxes meant to punish or change peoples’ habits, but I’m for taxes that cause costs to government, like buying gas to drive on a road causes wear on those roads.

  3. “Just wait until couples who don’t have children start complaining AS A GROUP about families “externalizing” their costs”

    heh we’re already out there, even if we’re (mostly) joking 😉

    1. Not just couples but the singles as well. Everyone who is being forced to take on a higher tax burden to fund someone else’s decision to have sex and children should be upset by this strange form of prostitution where you are forced to pay for sex but don’t even get to participate, lol.

  4. One other point as it relates to smokers and the morbidly obese. Ask 100 mental health professionals about charging higher rates to these folks. If you do, they’ll wonder why in the world you think you’d be able to get away with charging higher rates to people who are suffering from mental issues.

    Smoking is, of course, an addiction. Smokers are victims, and ought not to be stigmatized. Serious overeating is a compulsive disorder. Same thing. Victims. The notion of personal choice is inconsistent with addiction and serious compulsive disorders. These people deserve our compassion and our help. That’s the story.

    Oh, btw, like I said, I don’t think the childless couple argument holds water. I accept the social contract. My point is only that once we start closely scrutinizing private behavior for “externalities,” the social contract will begin to noticeably fray.

    1. The laws being discussed that charge more for coverage on overweight folks and smokers come with attached programs that help people get healthier. If people choose not to, thats up to them. People can get addicted to just about anything. That doesn’t mean other people should have to

      The social contract has always had it’s limits. I think it makes the social contract stronger to put rules in place that give clear consequences for behavior that incurs costs on society.

    2. I haven’t read about the “social contract” philosophy in many years. So I went out and read some on the internet to refresh my old Jesuit education. It was interesting.

      Three thoughts:
      Our social contract is not static. It evolves as our society evolve.

      There is significant disagreement today as to what the social contract is and especially as it contrasts with individual responsibility.

      There really are many people in our country who are lazy and willing to just take advantage of the good will of others. Thus it is possible for the more successful and/or fortunate in society to help those who not…too much. Leading to more and more folks living off the success of others. It is a very very complicated issue. To play off of the old bible story…sometimes we just pass out the bread & fish over and over instead of insisting that people learn to cook & fish (aka…take responsibility).

  5. People can’t “get addicted to anything” in a clinical sense. Nicotine is a physically addictive substance that causes real physical withdrawal symptoms. That makes smoking substantively different from the garden-variety notion of addiction as you have used it to dismiss my argument.

    It IS true that compulsive behavior can manifest in variety of ways that are harder to classify clearly as mental illness. But morbidly obese people exhibit clear indications of the sort of compulsive behavior that mental health professionals would nearly universally classify as a serious mental disorder.

    For at least century now, folks without any real experience or knowledge of mental disorders have sought to frame issues of mental illness as mere matters of will and personal responsibility. The problem for such folks is their nearly universal failure to demonstrate any clinical efficacy that stems from this perspective.

    In other words, folks who want to simply blame smokers and fat people for their problems, characterize their problems as a mere matter of unwillingness to take personal responsibility, and then hold them financially responsible? They are talking out of their asses. The scientific medical community has already made the decisions about how to frame such problems. They have done so in such a way that represents an overwhelming consensus of experts in the field.

    You know, the same sort of expert consensus that you’ve previously said you always like to rely upon. 🙂

    1. What about me saying I’m not making a moral argument do you not understand? Doesn’t make any difference as to whether they have a mental illness or not. If they’re DOING something that creates more costs on the system, that activity should be taxed to pay for the increased costs.

      All this other stuff you keep trying to pull the debate towards doesn’t have anything to do with my argument. You can use them as a justification for yours, but I didn’t say anything dismissing mental illness, compulsion or any other such stuff.

  6. I think one of the things that cause a lot of problems in the political discussions in our country is that too often people put up “straw man” arguments where they try to push the discussion to either an “extreme” or “small percentage” of the “occurences”. And then beat up on that small slice of the issue. That is where I think your angle focused on mental health fits.

    About 23% (and shrinking) of the people in the U.S. smoke and about 40% (and growing) are considered overweight to the point of potentially causing health issues. These percentages are far higher than those who have mental issues. Nearly everyone has some level of challenges in their lives, and we should be responsible for dealing with best we can. Calling any or even most genetic or social or upbringing related challenge we have a mental illness is an overstatement.

    Now for those that truely do have mental issues beyond the norm (for lack of a better word)…some of the money raised would be spent toward helping those folks. This would probably improve the level of support to those who need and deserve it.

    One other thought…per you line of thought, gambling can be a serious addiction for people and I agree with the medical professions assessment on this. However, I don’t think all the non-gamblers should have to subsidize the gambling losses of the gamblers that have an addiction problem. Interestingly, in most states (maybe all) some of the money raised in taxing the casino’s goes toward helping folks with gambling addictions. Does it solve the gambling addiction issue…of course not as no program (government or non-government) can achieve that.

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