Choking Freedom of Choice: Policing Soda, French Fries, Smoking?

If the government pays for your health care, should it tell you how to live and coerce you into eating healthy foods?

On May 23, panelists on “Forbes on Fox” discussed to what extent government should act as a food police by taxing unhealthy foods and subsidizing healthy lifestyles. This is part of the debate surrounding health care reform as President Obama explores ways of funding his $1.2 trillion health care plan.

One proposal calls for a federal tax on soft drinks, energy drinks, beer, wine, and most sugary beverages. Proponents justify the tax because these drinks contribute to higher obesity and increased medical costs, and they believe the tax is necessary to offset these costs to society.


Quentin Hardy, Forbes magazine national editor, supported this proposal and remarked that people smoking cigarettes and getting obese “is a tax on me because it increases health care costs to me.” Thus, he wanted government to tax unhealthy behaviors to reduce health care demand.

Victoria Barret, Forbes associate editor, agreed with Hardy’s concerns about poor lifestyle choices forcing taxpayers to absorb the cost, but she worried more about government enforcement becoming unreasonable. She asked rhetorically, “How far do you take it? Do you pay people who exercise more?” Liking the idea, Hardy actually answered “Yes.”

Barret also suggested, “We should subsidize soybeans, right?  I mean if we’re going to take this to an extreme, we should subsidize tofu.” Although asked in jest, Barret’s comment touched upon a serious concern – after establishing a precedent of taxing unhealthy drinks, Obama’s administration could mandate taxes on any food or behavior it deems unhealthy so it could bleed additional tax revenue.

“Bads” such as donuts, watching television, carbon, and fast food could be taxed to fund Obama’s health care plan, whereas “goods” such as fitness gyms and healthy vegetables could be subsidized.

Both Jack Gage and Bill Baldwin, Forbes associate editor and editor, respectively, worried about this idea of taxing unhealthy behaviors. “It’s a tax on freedom of choice…,” Gage insisted, “If the nannies in Washington are going to tell me whether or not I can smoke, drink beer or sugar, soda or drive my car using gasoline, you gotta be kidding. Is this the United States or what!?”

Baldwin suggested sarcastically that a federal nutrition tax board should authorize decisions on what to tax. The board might “decide to tax soda but not french fries. What makes people fat anyway?” he asked.