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Forget smokers, tax snackers

PoliticsState BudgetsGeorge W. BushRichard NixonDiabetesNestle SA

Americans get really weird when we talk about obesity. We treat fat people like anorexic teenage girls. We don't want to freak them out or hurt their feelings. It might turn them into cutters.

We dance around the reasons for obesity as if it's a mystery, a phenomenon that modern science may someday unravel. It could be hormonal or glandular or genetic or -- even worse -- contagious! Every week, half-baked studies are published and reported on, and (like everything else) we eat them up. Bacteria in your stomach may cause a craving for chocolate, according to a study last month by Nestle Research Center in Switzerland. Um . . . it's never OK to be your own spoof.

We think about obesity the way Cro-Magnons thought about pregnancy. It's a fact of life, but random and unexplainable. If you can't drink a couple of 2-liter bottles of cola a day and remain a size 2, it must mean that you have a slow metabolism or something. Just can't figure it out.

According to oft-cited research published in the journal Obesity, the annual cost to the state of medical care attributable to obesity is estimated to be almost $7.7 billion. If every man, woman and child in California put $200 into a fund on a yearly basis, that wouldn't be enough to cover that tab. And that's just what the state spends.

So with these facts in mind, Democratic leaders in the Legislature, in the latest bid to get uninsured Californians covered, this week proposed to tax (drum roll) . . . tobacco!

The California Department of Health reported that as of May 2007, only 13.3% of adults smoked. So the financial burden for the 6.7 million uninsured rests on the shoulders of an estimated 4.7 million nicotine enthusiasts.

What's worse, the proposed $2-a-pack tax -- besides being punitive -- is an attempt at prevention. In other words, the more effective the tax is as a disincentive to smoking, the less money it would generate. Opponents of the idea have been quick to point this out.

I have a better proposal: a snack tax. We had one for about 18 months in the early 1990s. Granted, it was shot down in the polls by a huge margin, but that never stopped George W. Bush or Richard Nixon, or Dennis Kucinich for that matter, from making a comeback. In fact, a tobacco tax also was voted down here last year. So we're clearly not afraid of reruns.

I have a motto: Alliteration makes for good legislation. So we can sell the snack tax like this: Tack 10 cents onto anything beige, battered or bite-sized.

The obesity epidemic is a serious health crisis. Even cockroaches are coming down with Type 2 diabetes. And it's all from -- surprise -- the food we eat. Fast food. Fried food. Sugary food. High-fructose corn syrup. It's in abundance, and its super cheap. We've overindulged, and it's driving up healthcare costs each year.

But it's really unpopular to bring that up. We can sin-tax smokers all day long. Don't let them smoke in public areas; don't let them smoke in their apartments. Fine them if they smoke in their cars when there are minors riding with them. Shame them into being social pariahs. But mention the connection between late-night drive-thru and Lane Bryant, and you're the jerk.

Tax junk. If you look on the package for the nutritional facts and there are none to speak of -- that's not food, that's caloric entertainment. And paying another dime for that is reasonable. Junk-food makers won't feel the pinch. Junk-food eaters might not even notice. Ditto for those who abstain (health-food nuts and terrorists mostly).

But it finally would force junk food to contribute to healthcare instead of just weighing on the system.

It is time to de-mystify why we are fat. It is what and how much we eat. As the state debates how to pay for healthcare, let's keep what's on our table on the table.

Tina Dupuy is a writer and comedian in Los Angeles.

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