This is isn't your average "fat tax."
Lawmakers in Puerto Rico are mulling a contentious bill that aims to punish the parents of obese children. The proposed legislation, which was first introduced to the territory's senate this Monday, would hold parents accountable by identifying students who are obese, recommending diet and exercise programs for them to lose weight, and then penalizing the parents of children who fail to follow the recommendations.
Some legislators, including the bill's sponsor, Senator Gilberto Rodriguez, are adamant that there needs to be consequences for the growing and costly obesity epidemic. Senator Jose Luis Dalmau, who supports the bill, believes that holding parents accountable is "necessary for society." But fining parents for failing to lower their children's body mass index is controversial, and many people are vehemently opposed.
"This is not abuse. It’s a disease," Milly García, a nutritionist who doesn't support the proposal, told local newspaper El Nuevo Día. "It would mean entering into a private area where the government does not belong. Obesity is the result of many factors and what we need to do is find solutions."
As proposed, education officials and public school teachers would identify children who are obese. Parents of those children who are flagged as obese would be referred to officials within Puerto's Rico's health department. Together, parents and health officials would then determine the cause and lay out a plan to help the children lose weight (for some, it will mean cutting back on calories; for others, it might mean more time spent outside).
There would also be monthly follow ups, and a check-up to assess progress after six months, where obese children would be evaluated to determine whether any improvement has been made. Parents of children who haven't lost weight or followed instructions would be referred to child-family services, and cases that persist would result in fines of as much as $800.
The obesity rate in Puerto Rico is relatively high. Only 12 U.S. states had a higher rate of adults who were either obese or overweight in 2013, according to the CDC. But the obesity rate among Puerto Rico's youth, and especially its children, is particularly high. Nearly 30 percent of children are considered obese on the island, compared to 18 percent in the mainland United States.
Countries targeting obesity have traditionally, or at least lately, favored taxing fatty and sugary foods to reverse the course of their collective waistline. Some of those have proven effective. Mexico's sugar drinks tax has led to a decrease in soda consumption, while others have proven less so. Denmark discontinued a tax on unhealthy foods after it concluded that people were simply venturing across the border to indulge. Berkeley, California just passed a soda tax of its own despite powerful opposition.
Holding parents accountable by fining them for failing to help their children lose weight is another thing entirely. The argument for such an intrusive approach centers around the notion that parents are—knowingly or not—complicit in the perpetuation of poor life habits in their children. The hope is that by forcing families to confront the reality that a child is obese, and working to help everyone better understand the roots of that problem, parents and children will both be made more aware of the consequences of their actions.
The desire to educate the population about the prevalence of and problems with obesity is a worthwhile one. Studies have shown that what parents feed their babies can affect what those babies crave for the rest of their lives. Obese children have also been found to be largely unaware of the fact that they are obese. But the means currently being proposed might be too intrusive for the population's liking, and misguided in its focus on parental negligence as the leading cause of child obesity.
"It’s not the right way to address this problem," Ricardo Fontanet, the president of a local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told El Nuevo Dia. "It’s going to bring more problems because there are children who are overweight due to underlying medical issues and genetic factors."
The bill is set to be debated in a public hearing this Friday, February 13, according to the Associated Press.