Monday, December 29, 2008

No hope for overweight smokers

From the vantage point of my tenth floor window, I have a beautiful view of the broad expanse of Lake Ontario. On a clear day, I can see the far shore in New York State. And, that’s troubling. New York’s Governor, David Paterson, has apparently come down with a mysterious malady which tends to smother common sense.

What if the virus causing this unknown illness is borne across the lake like a wisp of secondhand smoke? What if Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty, and his colleagues are infected with the same dreadful disease? They’ve already demonstrated an incredible lack of common sense in combating the smoking epidemic.

Epidemics, as you probably already know, are becoming every politician’s favourite boogeyman; raising taxes, particularly during tough economic times, can be an exceptionally volatile proposition.

But, raising the spectre of a life-threatening epidemic provides politicians with all the justification they need to support regressive, discriminatory taxes with relative impunity. There is little political cost associated with fighting an epidemic, whether it’s real or imagined.

Just look at the recent CNN article by New York Governor David Paterson: “Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a new public health epidemic: childhood obesity.” Uh-huh.

And, just how does the Governor plan to deal with the problem? Why, he’ll raise taxes of course. Isn’t that why politicians embrace the ever-growing number of epidemics in the first place? Says the Gov: “Just as the cigarette tax has helped reduce the number of smokers and smoking-related deaths, a tax on highly caloric, non-nutritional beverages can help reduce the prevalence of obesity.”

And just how does the Gov know that cigarette taxes helped reduce the number of smokers and smoking related deaths? Why, he was told by the anti-smoker fanatics at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Uh-huh.

So, the Gov has imposed a new obesity tax on soft drinks and sugared fruit drinks which will generate over 400 million dollars in tax revenue and eliminate obesity. OK, it may not eliminate obesity, but it will have a major impact on the problem. OK, OK. Would you believe it might put a wee, tiny dent in the problem?

Besides, from a political perspective, it will pave the way to extort additional taxes from John Q Public. No one is likely to complain. After all, it’s for our own good and the good of the children.

And, although some people will be annoyed, no one will be shocked when the obesity tax is extended to other unhealthy foods because the tax on soft drinks is simply not having the desired effect.

Governor Paterson won’t have to do a lot of research to identify the next target for taxation in his fight against the obesity epidemic. There’s already a list of the 10 worst foods to consume if you’re prone to being overweight. A video on You Tube (Natalie on Nutrition) correctly identified soft drinks as the number one food item to be avoided if you don’t want to put on the pounds.

The list includes the usual suspects: hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, potato chips, bacon, fried catfish, etc. Uh-huh; fried catfish. Like, I'm down at the Colonel's three or four times a week for the fried catfish. At any rate, an obesity tax on these items could raise billions in revenue. It’s a politician’s dream; the opportunity to raise taxes, justified in the name of the public good. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, there may be a few unintended consequences.

For example, unlike punitive cigarette taxes which target smokers exclusively, the obesity tax on soft drinks will apply to everyone, obese or not. Will “normal” people object to paying a tax designed to curb obesity? Will they blame the government for picking their pockets to combat a health problem with which they are not afflicted?

Or, will they direct their anger and frustration at those they believe to be the cause?

Says the Gov: “We must never stigmatize children who are overweight or obese. Yet, for the sake of our children's health, we have an obligation to address this crisis.”

But some are already suggesting that’s exactly what should be done: “There should be a stigma attached to obesity. Hopefully it will motivate people to get healthy.”

The health scare professionals, who have been busy creating fear and promoting the hatred of smokers, will use the same tactics against the overweight and obese, to shame them into adopting a “healthy” lifestyle. They’ll point to the billions of dollars the overweight are costing the health care system. They’ll lament the number of “premature and preventable” deaths. And they’ll conduct a campaign to de-normalize the overweight and obese.

To be sure, the de-normalization of the overweight will be much more subtle than the campaign against smokers. But, the effect will be the same; social ostracism.

As a smoker, I’ve grown very suspicious of people who want to “motivate”, “encourage” or “help” me to quit and become, once again, a normal, healthy human being. And, I understand, as most smokers do, the deliberate stigmatization of those who choose to smoke.

Maybe, as a smoker, I should take comfort in the fact that the do-gooders have found another target group for their experiments in social engineering. Unfortunately, with a BMI (body mass index) of 27.2, I find myself ensconced in yet another minority group; the overweight.

I guess I’d better get to work and shed those 15 excess pounds before Dalton and his Liberal colleagues here in Ontario decide to follow Paterson’s lead.

Just the thought of all that help and encouragement makes me cringe.

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