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The Government Could Tax Junk Food Like Booze

An excise tax that rises with the amount of unhealthy ingredients in junk food could do something about out-of-control obesity rates.


Both adult and childhood obesity rates have hit an all-time high and don’t look to be dropping anytime soon. And people aren’t just get bigger; because of the serious health ramifications of obesity, many Americans are also getting dead a lot sooner than they would have if they’d eaten well and exercised. While a large handful of Americans might make going to the gym more their top New Year’s resolution for 2018, a new economic program being proposed by some scholars might make a massive difference. Is it likely that the government will start taxing junk food according to how unhealthy it is? Not in the immediate future, no. But it is apparently possible and doing so would not be without precedent.

A tax on junk food would be legally and administratively viable according to an analysis by researchers at New York and Tufts Universities. That analysis draws a number of parallels between junk foods, liquor, and cigarettes, pointing out that the government already uses taxes as a strategy to shape consumer behaviors. Excise taxes, levied against manufacturers and placed on alcohol and cigarettes, spike prices, disincentivizing consumption. And extensive research has shown that implementing or increasing these kinds of taxes can have wide-reaching effects on consumer behavior, especially in regard to unhealthy products.

The analysis makes a strong case for instituting a junk food tax to help curb obesity and other life-threatening diseases, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. The NYU and Tufts research team looked extensively at scientific literature and existing laws both in the U.S. and abroad to determine and feasible model for taxing junk food, and suggested that a graduated tax could be most effective, like the kind levied on liquor.

“Junk food taxes have the potential to substantially reduce the disease burden that results from unhealthy food and beverage consumption in the United States,” said Renata Micha, RD, Ph.D., one of the study’s senior authors.

While a tax of this kind on junk food and soda isn’t a popular idea, Americans pay for items with graduated, excise taxes like liquor all the time without realizing it. U.S. manufacturer taxes on wine and liquor increase with the amount of alcohol in the product, and a similar model could work for junk food. A graduated tax that increases with the level of unhealthy additives in a product, including sugar, could incentivize the manufacturer to use less of it. If a manufacturer keeps the levels of sugar the same, the cost could be passed on to the consumer, which may incentivize people to eat less of it. Either way, the taxation model would at least take a stab at obesity rates, which affected 40 percent of American adults and 19 percent of American children in 2015-2016.