Would a Fitness Tax Break Encourage More People to Join a Club?

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Last week, the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, pledged to double the country's popular fitness tax credit for children and also to extend the credit to adults if his Conservative Party government is re-elected. This would allow Canadians to receive tax breaks for gym memberships, among other fitness-related expenses.

When I read the news, I immediately thought of “Armageddon.”

No, I don't think this tax credit spells the end of the world. I'm referring to that old Bruce Willis film. Remember? It was one of the first in that genre of films where a rag-tag team of tough but good-hearted civilians is assembled to shoot down an asteroid and stop robots from taking over the planet and battle aliens.

There's a scene in it where Willis's character is giving his team's list of demands for their asteroid-destroying services. After a litany of silly things such as bringing back 8-track tapes and a week at Caesar's Palace in Vegas, the team urges their spokesman to state their final demand:

“Yeah, one more thing ... none of them wanna pay taxes again. Ever.”

That line got laughs in the theater because that's one thing that unites us all: Americans don't like paying taxes.

Sure, depending on our political leanings, some of us may be more resistant than others. But not even those people who happily vote for a tax increase to help their city employ more police officers, repair roads or keep schools open like having to write a check to the IRS come April.

But does our dislike for paying taxes affect how we behave?

In many cases, our government banks (literally) on the fact that it does. To wit, we are offered tax breaks for what are generally considered desirable behaviors—installing energy efficient windows, putting our children through college, giving to charity—and we pay higher taxes for a lot of things we would be better off not doing—such as smoking cigarettes, gambling or using indoor tanning beds. Recently, several state and local governments have pondered—and in some cases approved—“sin taxes” on sodas, fast food, high fructose corn syrup and other consumables that they say contribute to obesity rates.

Statistics and studies on the subject cannot offer a definitive answer about whether sin taxes work. Critics argue that there are too many factors influencing a person's behaviors, including education, environment and religious beliefs, to conclude that any one of them is the determinant. The industries affected by sin taxes would rather not take the chance, nor would they pay big money for ads warning consumers of the detrimental effect taxing soda might have on their budgets and personal freedoms and for lobbyists to give politicians the same message. On the other hand, some have argued that even if placing a higher tax on fast food doesn't stop most people from eating as much of it, it is still raising revenues that could help lessen the financial burden that obesity puts on our national health care costs.

Likewise, there are conflicting opinions as to whether offering tax breaks on desired behaviors has a significant effect. Will putting an extra $150 per child and $75 per adult back into Canadian families' pockets prompt more of them to sign their kids up for summer soccer camp or join fitness clubs? Maybe.

Would a similar fitness tax credit work in the United States? Perhaps. What is certain is that our government has never shied away from using taxes to try to encourage behaviors that benefit us or to discourage behaviors that harm us—even though we don't always agree on what those behaviors are.

It's not a matter of opinion that the United States is facing a health crisis that is directly related not just to what and how much we eat but to how little we exercise. Promoting a healthier, active lifestyle has been an objective for our lawmakers for some time, and the current administration in particular has made it a priority—in words, at least.

I don't know if a tax credit for fitness club memberships would get more Americans off their sofas and out of hospital beds, but I think it would demonstrate a consistent message regarding the importance of exercise. If our government believes that taxation is an effective way to communicate to the people which actions and values help us thrive, I'd like to see it put its money where its mouth is and offer a similar fitness tax credit in the United States.

What do you think?

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