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.

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