Can a tax on junk food cure obesity? Some politicians think it can work, just like cigarette taxes have been shown to help reduced smoking, The Chicago Tribune reported.
Public health experts are pushing for extra taxes on foods and drinks that contain a high amount of calories but no nutritional value, and lawmakers in at least six states have stated that they support the idea of a junk food tax. New York Gov. David Paterson, for example, proposed an 18% soda tax last year as a budget-balancing measure, but abandoned the initiative after three months when it met with strong public opposition.
But public support might be growing. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last month found 55% of respondents favored a tax on unhealthful snack foods, up from 52% in April, while support for a soda tax rose to 53% from 46%, The Chicago Tribune reported.
And 63% of those who opposed the idea said they would change their view provided the revenue generated from the tax was used to fund healthcare reform and combat health problems related to obesity. Junk-food taxes are often mentioned as a way to help fund a restructuring of the healthcare system, though no one in Congress has endorsed them.
A report this summer from the Urban Institute also backed the junk food tax idea, and stated such taxes are needed to ensure that rising obesity rates don’t cause the average American life expectancy to fall for the first time in history.
“We are killing 100,000 people per year, so something needs to get done,” said University of Virginia pediatric cardiologist Arthur Garson, one of the study’s authors.
But not everyone agrees. “This is the most ridiculous idea I’ve heard,” said Kellie Glass, a registered dietitian in Ashland, Ky., who doesn’t care to be penalized for indulging in ice cream now and then. “Folks are just not going to give up all the foods they love, even if they are more expensive.”
Others feel the taxes are unfair because the poor would be most affected by the tax. Fattening foods tend to be cheaper, while fresh produce and healthier foods are often pricier. Some argue the junk food tax could fix the imbalance and sway people to eat healthier foods.
Still, research shows it won’t be that easy. To affect the growing rate of obesity, the taxes would need to be large and widespread. Two-thirds of states now impose a minimal soft-drink tax-the average rate is 5.2%-and while the taxes are linked to a drop in body weight, the difference is slight: about 3 ounces for a 5-foot-10, 279-pound person.
Further data shows such taxes can have the reverse effect of increasing consumption of fatty or salty foods. And, by raising prices on soft drinks customers might just switch to higher calorie sports drinks. Junk-food taxes also are not always logical. A 5.5% snack tax in Maine, for example, affected blueberry muffins and fresh-baked apple pies, but not English muffins or frozen pies.
Also, it’s likely the taxes, if adopted, would not be high enough to be effective. A 10% tax on a $1.50-bottle of Coke would raise the price only 15 cents, which is not enough to convince most shoppers to change their choice of beverage. Plus, many high calorie snacks are priced so low that even with a huge tax they still would not be priced high enough to dissuade shoppers. Some studies even show shoppers would still buy the expensive junk food items despite the tax and then buy less fruits and vegetables to compensate for the expense.
Studies continue into whether raising the price of junk food might really affect obesity rates and consumer purchase habits.