Fruit folly

Taxing fruits and vegetables is an extremely retrogressive act.

organic vegetables 88 (photo credit: )
organic vegetables 88
(photo credit: )
Folly was defined by the great American historian Barbara Tuchman as the pursuit of a policy contrary to one's own self-interest. She was referring to political and military matters, and not dealing with the behavior of successive Israeli governments, especially not with respect to their policies relating to health. That being said, the recent decision requiring the addition of value-added tax to fruits and vegetables appears unfortunately to most perfectly fit the definition of a public health policy folly. There are, of course, serious public health implications to this decision. Over the years an impressive body of research has examined the strong link between good health and a healthy diet. Furthermore, a veritable army of scientists has examined the benefits of the "Mediterranean diet," an important component of which is the consumption of fruits and vegetables . The Promised Land offered us no oil, much desert, little water, etc. However, we were fortunate to have been granted this biblical Mediterranean diet, with the seven species including olive oil and pomegranates. Among other things, the consumption of such a diet might help to explain why Israelis (at least until recently) have enjoyed some of the best health indices in the world. Some might be surprised to learn that our numbers are better even then those of countries which benefit from a happy combination of lower security concerns and a much higher GDP. IN THE SPIRIT of Barbara Tuchman, we are driven to ask, "Why would we chose to throw away this lucky advantage?" And one should also take into account that a healthy diet will ultimately lower health expenses for chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. From the economic point of view, as our young colleagues in the Treasury surely must know, taxing fruits and vegetables is an extremely retrogressive act. Calorie for calorie, these foodstuffs are already more expensive than other processed foods (usually packaged and laced with salt and sugar) which are to be found in the central aisles of our supermarkets. Bamba already costs far less than broccoli. These cheaper fattening foods have been implicated in the burgeoning obesity epidemic which began in the US but has now begun to spread here too. Clearly, these new taxes will hardly stop the rich from enjoying their salads. Rather they will make it more difficult for the poor to consume a healthy diet. And we already know that those in the lower socioeconomic brackets suffer from poorer health. Why encourage a further widening of these gaps via foolish (as in folly) public policy? Finally, acts of governments, even here, can offer a moral/heuristic influence - either positive or negative. The message being offered to our young people is that instead of choosing to triple the taxes on, for example, sweetened soft drinks, junk food and alcohol, our lawmakers actually want to encourage a poor diet for the poor. What effect will this message have on the public's waning trust in our democratic institutions? The citizen already has enough reasons to lack faith in the government's competence, not to speak of its increasing willingness to desert the poor. The government's wrong-headed decision to put a tax on fruits and vegetables, if it stands, must go down in history as one of the greatest health follies perpetrated by a democratically elected government. Further, part of these taxes could even be considered for health promotion and education - the Cinderella of preventive medicine. More than a century ago our grandmothers already seemed to know all of this when they exhorted us to finish up our fruits and vegetables. Why are their grandchildren in the Treasury not listening? A. Mark Clarfield MD is the Sidonie Hecht Professor of Geriatrics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Prof. Ora Paltiel MD is a hematologist and researcher at the Braun School of Public Health/Hadassah Medical School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Elliot M. His Berry MD is professor of nutrition and medicine at the Braun School of Public Health/Hadassah Medical School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.