In the course of modern history, human ingenuity has triumphed over diseases such as small pox and polio, and found cures for many others. However, there is hardly any room for complacency. As we beat back diseases that used to wreak havoc around the world, we have been losing much ground to a new breed of diseases known as “lifestyle diseases” like obesity, diabetes and stroke. While a vaccine could be the answer to an old-world disease, lifestyle diseases are much more complicated and governments all over the world are trying different approaches to correct their people’s living habits.
In an attempt to discourage people from buying unhealthy sugary drinks, France and Mexico were among the first countries to impose a tax on those beverages. In 2014, Berkeley became the first US city to pass a tax on sugar-added and artificially sweetened soft drinks, and since then consumption has fallen by a quarter. Starting from January 2017, citizens of Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in America, will need to shell out US$15 cents for every ounce of soda they buy. Elsewhere, San Francisco, Oakland and Albany will be voting on their own soda tax measures later in the year. In response, the soda industry has spent millions, and is prepared to spend millions more, in an all-out campaign to block the tax, but the amount is a drop in the ocean compared to the US$3.2 trillion, or 17.8% of the GPD, spent on health care in Americalast year.
Lifestyle diseases are not confined to developed countries like America. Developing countries are not only catching up on economic development, but also on consumption patterns. While per-capita meat consumption in China is still a fraction of that in North America and Europe, it has quadrupled in the last three decades and currently stands at 63kg per person per year, an amount that is considered unhealthy. To bring it down to a healthy level, the Chinese government has issued a new set of dietary guidelines with an aim of cutting meat consumption among the Chinese by at least 50%. It has even enlisted Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron to promote the cause.
The Chinese government’s attempt to steer people towards a healthier diet would also steer them towards a healthier planet. Now that we know the production of meat – especially red meat – has a huge impact on the environment, belching out greenhouse gases, draining natural resources and polluting our planet, what we choose to eat is no longer a personal choice but a decision that can change the world, for better or worse.
The Council of Ethics in Denmark, for one, is pushing for a “climax tax” on red meat, saying that Danes have an ethical obligation to fight climate change. The proposed tax has plenty of critics, and there is no telling whether it will be approved. Only one thing is certain. Even if we refuse to shoulder the cost for damaging the environment, it will cost us in other ways that we are in no position to pay.