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The skinny on the video game 'fat tax'

By Walt McGraw
CNN Headline News


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(CNN) -- I have to admit, I never thought I'd be writing an edition of Big Video Game Hunting about a "fat tax." Call it, Big Fat Video Game Hunting if you must. But here we are.

If you live in New York state, you might soon have to pay a "fat tax" on video games and video game equipment. Yep, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, introduced a bill Monday that would add "a surcharge on video game rentals, sales, TV advertising and corporate America's fast-food industry."

Widening American middles have been getting wide attention lately. Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said, "Obesity is our nation's fastest-rising public health problem, and it's increasingly affecting every segment of the American population -- particularly young people."

Ortiz agrees. He says there are twice as many obese kids now as there were in the mid-1980s. And he says almost one out of four New York schoolchildren is overweight. One solution, Ortiz says, is an earlier bill, the Childhood Obesity Prevention Program -- which is expected to be passed by the New York legislature. In a nutshell, it would prohibit the marketing and sale of junk food in New York's public schools and create prevention and education programs to combat obesity.

The problem is, how to pay for those programs?

Enter the Matrix.

Ortiz says if an industry is making people obese, then it "should be responsible and at least contribute to prevention." By extension, I suppose, those who support such an industry should also contribute. Hence, the fat tax. Or, more formally, the Childhood Obesity Prevention Program Fund.

A screenshot from "Britney's Dance Beat" video game.

Ortiz: It's very simple. Our kids are spending too much time behind the TV playing games. That's one reason the kids are fat. ... When my oldest son was 6, he started to be inactive. So I threw his SEGA away. I said, "No way, Jose. This is gone."

Bob Stern, program director for the New York State Assembly Task Force of Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy, (whose very title seems like good exercise) points to the comment of one expert during initial hearings about the obesity problem. "He told us there were three N's of obesity. Nintendo. Netscape. And Nickelodeon."

Taxing Internet access proved impossible. Taxing Nickelodeon could prove tricky. But, says Stern, an extra nickel tacked onto the price of your next Nintendo game, makes good sense.

Hey, didn't the video game industry net more money than Hollywood last year?

There are a few details for the fat-tax bill that still seem to need some ironing out. I pointed out that the average video gamer is 28, arguably old enough to make poor personal health choices. "Sure, but they might have kids," says Stern.

I asked Ortiz about those wacky games that work only if you gyrate like a fool on a digital dance-pad.

BVGH: How could you tax "Britney's Dance Beat?"

Ortiz: [laughs] That should probably receive a tax incentive.

It was my next question that I now regret.

BVGH: Why not movie rentals? I mean, at least with video games you're moving your thumbs.

Ortiz: You're giving me an idea ...

Uh oh.

Stern: They're already part of the bill. And a 1 percent tax on movie tickets is in there too.

Me and my fat lip.


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