Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Creative Commons
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A supermarket full of unhealthy choices.
Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Creative Commons

Death, Taxes and the Fight Against Junk Food

Some taxes just might make us healthier.

Benjamin Franklin, in 1789, pointed out that nothing is certain but death and taxes. Though to be fair, the same dismal sentiment had already popped up in 1726, in Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil. It’s a phrase on many of our minds on income tax day.

A new breed of taxes, however, now has the potential to make us both healthier and longer-lived. The latest of these went into effect this month inside the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile reservation home to 250,000 people, with territory extending into Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Known as the Healthy Diné Nation Act, this is the first U.S. tax imposed on both sugary drinks and junk foods. (See Why Empty Calories Are a Big Problem.) At the same time, the Navajo Nation has lifted the current 5 percent tax on healthy fruits and vegetables sold on the reservation.

Native activists, worried about the prevalence of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease among the Navajo, are hopeful that the new tax will steer people away from sugar-laden sodas, cheese puffs, chips, and fried pies and toward healthy food choices of the sort made from Michael Pollan’s recommended edges of the grocery store. A problem for the Navajo, however, is availability of food on the reservation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed the Navajo Nation a “food desert:” in some local stores, over 90 percent of the inventory is devoted to junk foods and high-sugar drinks. In a 2012 survey, it was found that over half of tribal members bought their food off the reservation, in some cases driving over 200 miles round-trip for fresh vegetables and meats.

With the revenue from the new tax, the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), a grassroots consortium of concerned volunteers, hopes to implement programs on gardening and nutrition education – and as local demand for healthy food increases, they hope to see an improvement in food offerings at local grocery stores.

Most health advocates agree that junk food taxes – in the face of our national obesity crisis – are a good idea. The medical cost of obesity is somewhere between $147 and $210 billion dollars a year, with childhood obesity accounting for $14 billion of the total – collectively about 10 percent of all annual medical spending.

A 2012 report from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), such as sodas and sports drinks, are a major source of American daily calories, especially for kids ages 2-18. The report also cited a study showing that for each extra serving of SSBs consumed per day, the chance of obesity goes up by 60 percent. SSBs are also associated with cardiovascular risk, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and cavities.

The good news: a tax does seem to help wean us off this stuff. The Rudd Center report found that the demand for SSBs goes down when the price goes up; and it drops even more when coupled with nutrition education.

That said, not everybody favors the anti-sugar tax approach. Some citizens argue that such taxes disproportionately impact the already struggling poor. Others protest the idea of “nanny” government attempting to interfere with what should be personal decisions. Most prominently, the influential American Beverage Association – whose membership includes such SSB-manufacturing heavyweights as Coke and Pepsi–not unsurprisingly–objects to soda taxes. Beverage companies successfully defeated Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 attempt to ban super-sized soda sales in New York City.

The handwriting, however, may be on the wall. Now 33 states and several European countries have enacted SSB tax laws – though in the United States, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, the taxes are generally too tiny to have much consumer impact. In 2014, Mexico–by some accounts the largest consumer of SSBs in the world–levied a 10 percent tax on (non-alcoholic and non-dairy) sugary drinks, along with an 8 percent tax on junk foods, among them salty snacks, candy, ice cream, and (peculiarly) peanut butter. It’s not clear yet whether or not the tax is helping Mexicans kick their soda habit. Various analyses show soda sales down by 2 to 10 percent, but, some argue, that might be accounted for by normal year-to-year variation.

In November, 2014, Berkeley, CA, passed an SSB tax by a landslide–despite $2 million pumped into the campaign by the annoyed American Beverage Association–levying a general tax on all companies that distribute high-sugar, low-nutrition drinks. (San Francisco’s heftier SSB tax proposal failed to pass.)

Some studies point out that the hoped-for relationship between taxation and obesity–taxation up, obesity down–isn’t as straightforward as predicted. The reason may be that obesity is a complex problem, involving many factors. However, if SSB and junk food taxes at least persuade us to think about our nutritional choices, that’s not a bad measure of success.

I’d say let’s follow the Navajos.