Can We Tax People Into Healthy Behaviors? Change is More Complex Than It’s Given Credit For.

Higher Taxes May Not Get The Desired Result

Denmark has decided the answer to the country’s obesity program can be helped by higher taxes on butter and oil.  The food director at Denmark’s Confederation of Industries says a burger will go up by about $.15 and butter by around $.40.

Carrots or Sticks?

There is a long-standing debate over which method is more effective in driving behavior change.

  • Carrots – applying incentives/prizes when people lose weight, start exercising or stop smoking or
  • Sticks – applying disincentives such as higher insurance premiums for not making the recommended changes.

Wellness programs utilize carrots most of the time.  Sticks are used primarily for the big no-no’s like smoking.

When a country applies a higher tax to high fat foods, alcohol and cigarettes in an effort to discourage their use, it proves the leaders know little about what drives behavior change.  Paying more for a bag of chips will do no more to discourage people from eating chips than raising the price of gas has done to decrease fuel consumption.

If The Price of Gas Is Any Indication . . . . .

I drive 40 miles one way to work and back everyday and see no difference in the number of cars, the size of the cars, or the speed they are traveling now that gas is $3.50+ a gallon.  Large SUVs blow by me everyday on the interstate at 80 to 85 miles an hour.  They may be spending more on gas but that doesn’t cause them to slow down or drive less.  Ultimately, because more money is going in the gas tank, less money is going somewhere else.

This may be what will happen with taxing high fat foods.  The chips and butter cookies will still go in the grocery cart and the fruits and vegetables will stay on the shelf.

For behavior change to take place, people have to have a real reason to change.  Worksite wellness programs that encourage participation with carrots, such as drawings for iPods or other prizes, can jump-start program buy-in with give-aways.  In fact, it is necessary to get people involved initially. But people have to realize there is a larger reward if they are to make lifestyle changes.  That reward is better health.  This takes education, support, multi-touch programs, and constant positive reinforcement.

Why People Change

This week I asked employees for feedback as to how they were doing with the Ten Day Challenge. We are on day eight.  I received an e-mail from one person that said that since she has been on the program her blood sugar has dropped enough that she has reduced her insulin.  In eight days! She plans to stick with the no fast food program long after the 10 days are over.

The workplace challenge provided her education, encouragement, support from her teammates, and the chance to win a prize.  All very motivating stuff! But the ultimate inspiration comes from seeing the effects the diet is having on her overall health.  It trumps the iPod.

I blogged a month ago about Alan Deutschman’s book, “Change or Die” where he discusses what the real motivators are for behavior change.  It’s not carrots or sticks.   It’s not the threat of ‘eat better and exercise or you’ll end up with by-pass surgery’.  Deutschman says, “The best research on this topic had been led by John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School, who concluded that changing organizations depends overwhelmingly on changing the emotions of their individual members.

Higher taxes on fats and some of the other things we love to hate may invoke strong emotions, but not the ones that will help rid us of our addiction to them.

Why The ‘Fat Tax’ Might Make People Fatter

So if raising taxes on the ‘bad’ foods leaves less money for the ‘good’ foods, Denmark’s obesity problem may get worse instead of better.  They may have more money to fix the potholes in the roads though.