Why it’s time to stick a fork in fast food

Could a junk food tax fight back the bulge?
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11: Students line up to receive food during lunch in the cafeteria at Bowie High School March 11, 2004 in Austin, Texas. The Austin School District is working to make their cafeteria offerings more healthy, but the most popular foods are still fried chicken strips, pizza, and french fries. Concern about increased levels of childhood obesity in the United States has made the food served in public schools cafeterias a much greater concern. (Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images)


Jana Birchum/Getty Images

Every once in a while an issue hits the headlines that isn’t an issue at all, but a combination of a someone’s pet peeve and a slow news month: the rising tide of misandry (the war on men), reverse discrimination (the war on whites), draconian political correctness (the war on everything). And now, the ultimate non-issue issue: the war on fast food—or the “WAR ON FOOD FREEDOM” as Sun TV likes to call it. Even though the Canadian Medical Association Journal says “obesity is expected to surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable mortality” in Canada, and roughly one-quarter of Americans eat fast food every day, our right to gluttony is apparently on the line. Big Brother is watching what you eat. In September, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced the “Big Gulp” ban, which outlawed the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 oz. everywhere except supermarkets and grocery stores (the ban is currently being contested in court by both the American Beverage Association and National Restaurant Association). Meanwhile in Ontario, student leaders are boycotting the fast food joints neighbouring their high schools; it appears the province’s year-old, health-food-only-cafeteria policy has teenagers running for the nearest McDonald’s. Students involved in the “Stick it to Fast Food” campaign are urging students to bring their own lunches through November, in the hope that their cafeterias will one day adopt lunchtime fare that is both nutritious and tasty.

The campaign, along with its controversial logo (a fork with only one tine in the air, reminiscent of a hand giving the middle finger), was inspired by ad executive Grant Gordon, whose anti-obesity speech struck a chord with the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association at the group’s annual meeting in May. “In our school boards all the time we hear that cafeterias aren’t good enough, students aren’t healthy enough,” said Hirad Zafari, the association’s president. “So we thought, why not, as the students who are elected to look out for the best interests of [our peers], do something to make it better?”

There’s no doubt that this campaign, like Mayor Bloomberg’s, will bring out a Canadian iteration of the veggie-averse Ayn-Rand-ian contingent, one hand firmly on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the other wrapped around a KFC Double Down (their argument being the right to stuff your face freely.) The state has no place in the bowels of the nation, they’ll insist—or a variation thereof—and if people can’t practise moderation in their diets, it isn’t some health nut’s job to do it for them. But people should practise moderation—if not for their own sake, then for the nation’s. Big Brother is watching what you eat, sure, but we’re the ones picking up the cheque. As Glen Hodgson, senior vice-president and chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, noted in the Globe and Mail recently: “Rising obesity also carries a significant economic burden, very conservatively estimated at $4.6 billion in 2008 by the Canadian Institute for Health Information—and this number will only rise.”

It’s unlikely that the student trustees’ campaign will curb that statistic, or their peers’ love of greasy food (unless, perhaps, they go the pro-lifers’ route and hold up gigantic clogged-artery placards outside the nearest Arby’s) but there is something that possibly can: the Ontario Medical Association has proposed a tax on junk food to combat childhood obesity. OMA president Dr. Doug Weir believes that higher taxes and warning labels on junk food will lower obesity rates, in the same way taxation and warning labels have helped to significantly decrease smoking over the years. It would also likely create a stigma; moms won’t want to be seen buying their kids the snack with a stomach ulcer on the package. The Toronto Sun’s Paige MacPherson argues that a tax on junk food is a tax on the poor, because unlike affluent, policy-making people, poor folks can’t afford “gym memberships” and “quinoa salad from Pusateri’s.” Maybe so, but a box of quinoa is cheaper than a bucket of chicken from KFC and it lasts longer too. “A meal at McDonald’s for a family of four costs substantially more than a roast chicken dinner with some fresh vegetables,” Gordon notes. The OMA also proposed a tax decrease on healthy foods, which would balance out the alleged injustice of a tax increase on junk food.

In the end, the cynicism around so-called “nanny state” campaigns is understandable. It’s annoying when anyone—let alone government—tells you where to shop or what to eat. But it’s equally annoying when anti-tax types carp about a hypothetical tax burden in the present while ignoring the real one down the road. “Our kids have become fatter over the past few decades, which apparently means we must fatten our tax burden as well,” writes MacPherson. The conservative alternative? Do nothing, and let them fatten that burden all on their own.