EcoMeme: Fat Taxes, Too Cruel or Overdue?

weight scale

A perfect media storm blew in for the week of Fat Tuesday.

First came an impassioned TED speech by Jamie Oliver challenging Americans to solve our obesity epidemic through food and nutrition education and more excellent cooking.

Then came New York City’s Fashion Week with its requisite news of models getting fired from runway gigs for allegedly “being fat” at size puny.

In parallel, there was a huge debate around the emotional outbursts, each in 140-character Twitter format, by Kevin Smith the actor and filmmaker who was kicked off of a Southwest airlines flight this week for being too large and a “safety” concern.

One of the milder tweets he offered: “Wanna tell me I’m too wide for the sky? Totally cool. But fair warning, folks: IF YOU LOOK LIKE ME, YOU MAY BE EJECTED FROM @SOUTHWESTAIR.”

Obesity-haters on Twitter and comment boards web-wide suggested it was fair for airlines like Southwest to kick Smith (a.k.a. Silent Bob) off a flight if, in their estimation, a passenger was too large to fit in a single seat, and no other seat was available. Others sided with Kevin Smith but wondered if a “fat tax,” which essentially punishes people who stress the healthcare system and food supply, is worth considering.

An informal survey on of 12,000 site visitors showed that – rather unsympathetically – people who aren’t fat are more likely to support airlines’ charging fat people for two tickets, if they can’t fit into one seat as opposed to offering a wider seat, or two for the price of one.

If you’re fit, would you pass the buck to the obese? If you’re fat, would the tax help motivate you to lose weight by eating less, or healthier (and presumably more sustainable) foods?

Study up on all sides of the argument for and against fat taxes on everything from plane tickets to sugary foods with the links and resources here.


“Daniel Engber has likened fat to height. ‘How fat you are has a lot more to do with your genes than with your behavior,’ he argue[s]. ‘As much as 80 percent of the variation in human body weight can be explained by differences in our DNA. (Your height is similarly heritable.)’…Instances of radical, lasting weight loss are exceedingly rare. Diet and exercise schemes tend to yield only minor effects over the long term…” – A post by William Saletan for Slate comparing the tall to the fat.

“The idea of a special tax on soda, similar to those on tobacco, gasoline and alcoholic beverages, is attracting more interest. Advocates of a tax note that sugared beverages are the No. 1 source of calories in the American diet, representing 7 percent of the average person’s caloric intake, according to government surveys, and up to 10 percent for children and teenagers. ‘What you want,’ says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, ‘is to reverse the fact that healthy food is too expensive and unhealthy food is too cheap, and the soda tax is a start. Unless food marketing changes, it’s hard to believe that anything else can work.'” – A feature by Mark Bittman in the New York Times

“In Canada, the Supreme Court has ruled that obese and disabled people cannot be forced to buy a second seat on flights….Bill Fabrey, a director at the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, a non-profit group that advocates for larger people said airlines should provide some bigger seats to accommodate people of size, just as many cinemas and theatres had increased their seats. ‘People come in all shapes and sizes,’ he said. ‘Judging someone by the size of their body, not health level, comes down to discrimination against a class of people.'” – A feature story in The National


A post by BigFatDeal Blog that aggregates Kevin Smith’s Tweets about “flying while fat.”

A Web M.D. article about a new survey that says 8 of 10 adult males will be fat, not of healthy weight, by 2020

A story in the Syracuse Post-Standard about New Yorkers’ support of a “fat tax” of a kind, on sugary sodas.

A News-Herald story about curbing childhood obesity through more environmentally sound nutrition and standards for food in schools, which is one alternative to levying a fat tax against the obese.

A story by Tom Fudge for KPBS about new research that shows obesity is partly determined by the place where you live.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of EcoMeme, a column featuring eco trends, and tech highlights by Lora Kolodny.

Image: Alan Cleaver