Botox, Tanning and Health Care Reform

The recent surprise decision by Senator Evan Bayh to not seek re-election is likely a strong reflection of his desire to flee an unpopular ship as it is with his frustration with the ways of Washington. The recent questionable efforts to ramrod through a monster of major health care reform is certainly one factor that drove him closer to the edge of this decision. Perhaps Bayh knew that as the details of the health care bill began to see the light of day, great public disdain for all those that voted for it was sure to occur.

As a plastic surgeon, I was happy to see that the unsavory ‘Botax’(a 5% tax on all cosmetic procedures, surgery or otherwise) was cut from the final version of the Senate health care reform bill. The ‘Botax’ was eventually eliminated when it was quite rightly pointed out that it was not only a discriminatory tax on women but it was punishing those who sought self-improvement…the equivalent of taxing healthy behavior given the efforts of most patients to take good care of their investment in themselves.

As a replacement for taxing cosmetic surgery, the Senate desperately searched for ways to redistribute more of your money.  They turned their focus to… indoor tanning of all things. Known as the ‘Tan Plan’, a 10% federal tax on indoor tanning was quietly included in the revised bill. Optimistically, it is expected to generate close to 3 billion dollars to help pay for the uninsured. Tanning is a more palatable target because it is a debatedly unhealthy behavior that in the very least, doesn’t improve your skin’s condition from the experience.

While I don’t want to be an endorser of any behavior that exposes people to more ultraviolet radiation and thereby increases their risk of developing skin cancer, this new federal tax is just as reprehensible as the Botax and may even be more discriminatory.  Though the tanning industry and tanning advocates have put forth their concerns, I have yet to hear anyone mention the very biased nature of this tax. I am most definitely not a tanning expert,  but I am certain that the vast majority of the population that patronizes tanning salons are light skinned individuals seeking to darken their natural skin tone.  The number of non-Caucasian users of tanning salons must surely be very low, at best just a few percent of the total client base.  The Tan Plan is really a racially-biased tax, likely unintentionally but true nonetheless.

What the Botax and the Tax Plan demonstrate is that it is virtually impossible to pick and chose what type of human behavior you want to tax (penalize), and not raise a lot of concerns. If you really want to generate a lot of tax revenue and maybe even change societal health behaviors in the process, there should be a Fat Food Tax. Taxing food purchases with a certain percentage of fat content and the industry that makes them would make these other tax proposals as insignificant as the antioxidants in a soda.

Must we really be deluged with food choices that have such high fat or sugar contents? They taste great and we all love them, but most are a nutritional desert and have led us to be one of the most overweight countries per capita in the world. Obesity and all of the problems that it causes is a far greater health problem that cancer, AIDS and many other medical diseases combined. Such a food tax would, however, cause such a societal clamor that the mere mention of it makes one reach for that bag of Doritos. Taxing personal lifestyle behaviors is risky and will never be a politically popular way to try and fund some levels of health care reform.   

Dr. Barry Eppley