Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Junk Food Tax: Reader Ideas, Opinions, and Solutions

Last week, we discussed the prospect of a Junk Food Tax, a hypothetical federal tariff that would be placed on ostensibly unhealthy edibles like soda, pizza, and more. Ideally, it would curb obesity and prompt buyers toward making healthier grocery choices. Probably, it would make a lot of people angry.

I asked readers their opinions of the potential tax. Responses were voluminous, wonderfully thoughtful, and chock full of good points. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many were vehemently opposed to a junk levy. Of around 40 commenters, only eight were firmly in support, though many had reservations. Those favoring the tax did so mainly for two main reasons:

1) It would help regulate national health care expenses.
  • Rip: High sodium and sugar junk food diets cost the US FAR more than smoking or alcohol, in terms of health costs.
  • Sister6: Decreasing consumption would also decrease the incidence of health problems, and health care costs.
2) It’s not unlike taxing alcohol and cigarettes.
  • Lori: I see snacks and desserts as luxuries, and, as such, I'm fine with taxing luxury items.
Incidentally, I really liked one of commenter Mike’s solutions: “Good behaviors like gym attendance should be subsidized.” Some health insurance companies already do this (note: not mine), and it can only be a good thing.

Still, the vast majority of readers seemed uncomfortable with a Junk Food Tax. Many expressed a deep distrust in elected officials, particularly in their abilities to apply the taxes objectively and morally. Here’s a sampling of the responses from those who were not in favor:

1) There’s no way to regulate the regulators.
  • Amanda: The idea of who would be in charge of drawing the lines, what is "junk" and what is not, and the inevitable lobbies … scares me to death.
  • Alice: Can anyone tell me what happens to the tobacco and alcohol taxes in the US, and where they're proposing the revenues from the new 'fat tax' will end up?
 2) There are no clear guidelines on what would be taxed.
  • Anonymous: Where do you draw the line? Why soda and not candy bars?
  • Lisa: If the government-designed USDA Food Pyramid is used … then Wonder Bread and Rice Crispies will be health food, but we'd be taxing salmon and olive oil for the high fat content.
  • Elizabeth: Our understanding of what constitutes unhealthy food evolves so quickly that it's hard to know where to draw the line in a tax like this, or how often to update it.
3) It’s another symptom/indication of a growing Nanny State.
  • JuLo: They can educate, they can advise, but they absolutely cannot tell me not to drink soda, and taxing specific foods over others sure feels that way.
  • Anon: We need to start looking inward and taking responsibility for the things we do, eat, and say in this country.
Though readers disagreed on the concept overall, three alternatives to the Junk Food Tax were mentioned repeatedly, by people of every opinion, across the board. And those solutions were freakin' sweet.

1) Subsidize healthy foods.
  • The Happy Domestic: Here in Ontario, Canada, all pre-packaged, processed foods are taxable, and all whole-food staples are non-taxable. Now THAT's a tax scheme that makes sense to me.
  • AmandaLP: [I’d] be for a tax on junk food IF it were used to subsidize healthier whole food options…Making apples or lettuce a cheaper options than candy or chips is the way to do it.
2) Decrease or eliminate subsidies for corn, soy, and unhealthy foods.
  • KarenL: Cut the subsidies then we'll talk about taxes.
  • Shesasering: End corn/soy subsidies. The logic is better: we're fat because we eat at Mickey D's and drink soda, right? And we eat that because it's cheap. And it's cheap because corn/soy/wheat are produced at the government's expense. So it makes no sense to subsidize it on one end and tax it on the other.
3) Invest in long-term education.
  • Kristen: I'd rather see encouragement towards and education about good foods rather than taxation of bad foods.
  • Jennifer: Teach people how to garden and give them room to do it. Get some brilliant advertising people to develop ad campaigns that show home cooking from scratch as fun, easy and quick and full of those family values we're so fond of.
Finally, a few readers made a very important point: when we’re considering food and health on a national level, we can’t make the overweight into scapegoats. Not only is it discriminatory, but it’s a misdirection of anger that should be pointed elsewhere, like corporations that make bazillions off stuffing our four-year-olds.

Sweet readers, I want to thank you very, very much for responding in such a spectacular way. It's been a pleasure and an education reading your thoughts. If you have anything more to add, the comment section is open.

If you like this article, you might also dig:

Stumble Upon Toolbar


AMH in Missouri said...

I think the main thing is to make healthy food affordable. we subsidize just about everything is this country - so why not healthy food?

I think folks eat bad a lot because it is simply convenient by most importantly cheap.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Well, I feel honored that you included my comment! lol

And I totally agree with those who suggested reducing/eliminating the corn subsidies...that seems like an awesome idea to me (which probably means the government will never do it!).

Andrea, said...

I know its probably been said, but what about our own personal responsibility and freedom to choose for ourselves. I understand that regulating bad behaviors might make people think twice before doing it but with all the smoking and alcohol taxes people are still addicted to both and recreationally using both. I don't think food would be much different.

HAB said...

Cutting subsidies cuts to the heart of the problem much more than choosing to subsidize healthy food instead of tax junk food.

The only reason these taxes are even being discussed is because they are seen as a way to close a budget hole. Choosing to subsidize something rather than tax junk food (or anything) only exacerbates that budget hole.

The question that we all should be asking is why don't we get rid of these subsidies to large ag and food processing corporations instead of taxing citizens?

We should only start talking about new taxes once the true (material, not total) cost of our processed diet is shown.

Krista Moretz said...

Eating "junk food" is only part of the problem... people need to EAT LESS & MOVE MORE! When I say eat less, I mean we should know our daily caloric needs and eat appropriately. It's all about calories in vs. calories out. Of course, everyone should be getting their calories from fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, yada, yada, yada. But if you chose to eat a bag of chips at 160 calories (and that aint many chips people!) or a half a sandwich with lunchmeat and a slice of cheese for the same 160 calories, the latter is certainly gonna fill ya up more. "WE," the people, are responsible for what we eat!

Kate said...

@AMH- maybe because it doesn't necessarily work.

A great new study was just published in Psychological Science... "The Influence of Taxes and Subsidies on Energy Purchased in an Experimental Purchasing Study"

It's a little academic-ese, but in short:

The study took 42 mothers and created a fake “supermarket” in the lab. Each mother was given $22.50 per household member and told to shop for a week’s worth of meals. Half the mothers had family incomes above $50,000 per year, and half had incomes below. Forty percent of the women were defined as obese, with body mass index measurements of 30 or above, and 60% were of normal weight.

The researchers set up five shopping scenarios: real grocery store prices; discounts of 12.5% on healthful items and 25% on healthful items; and price increases of 10% on unhealthful items and 25% on unhealthful items.

When the prices of healthful items were lower, the shoppers did buy more of them. Then they used the money they saved to buy more junk food. The reactions of the obese and non-obese shoppers didn’t vary significantly.

Abundant Empress said...

This is a thoughtful article that presents several different opinions, and I appreciate that. I do not support new taxes of any kind, though. I figure the government has not handled our money very well so far, so why would new junk food taxes be used any more responsibly? It all comes down to the fact that they tend to waste money because it is not their money; it is ours.

LeahMay said...

Unsubsidizing corn and other similar subsidies is the best action. It will raise the cost of many types of junk food, save some money to support education programs, and nobody can complain about the government trying to control their lives. Some corn farmers might get upset but it might make some corporate farms disappear and allow for smaller family farms to take back the business.

GrowingRaw said...

Kris mentioned that we need to be careful not to turn fat people into scapegoats. Has anyone noticed themselves becoming slightly fattist around this issue?

The Happy Domestic said...

Thanks for using my comment in your summary article. :) It's great to see these kinds of collaborative discussions. Maybe what the country (yours AND mine) needs is more people to educate themselves by reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Tax food because it doesn't fit your bias? What is junkfood? Pizza? Is it the bread dough that scares you? Maybe that nasty tomato sauce? I know it's the cheese! Wake up! So who gets to define what is junkfood and what is "healthy" food? You think everyone agrees on this? There is no "bad" food. You are being scammed by politicians who would really like to tax everything. Every type of food has at one time or another been declared to be bad. Do we tax whatever is out of favor this year and change it next year when the food bigots move on to something else to hate???

Health said...

The country is taking great strides toward better diets and organic foods.

This is an exciting time in our food evolution for that reason, but here in the midwest there is a lot of work yet to be done.

Places like whole foods and trader joes are starting to appear which is promising. We need an entire generation to raise their children with a different outlook on how food should be used.