I don’t have to tell you that obesity is a stunning epidemic in the US. More than one-third of American adults are obese.
Nothing indicates that we’re likely to get slimmer anytime soon. Depending on which study you read, the obesity rate is expected to reach anywhere from 42% to more than 50% by 2030.
Fattening up means that we’re bound to see an increase in health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. And even those of us who don’t develop those serious diseases will pay a price for them (literally), because all that illness will push health-care costs higher.
Obviously something needs to be done—even our political leaders agree on that. But what and how? There are many different schools of thought.
A prominent one got a lot of attention this past May, when the mayor of New York City proposed a citywide ban on certain sugary drinks. Special junk food taxes (also known as “fat taxes”) have been proposed in various states, too, such as Maine (more on that below).
My take? These proposals may have been triggered by good intentions, but they’re only half-hearted solutions, and here’s why…
Let’s start by examining New York City’s proposed ban, which would prohibit the sale of any sweetened drink greater than 16 ounces that contains more than 25 calories per eight ounces, such as regular sodas, energy drinks and presweetened iced teas. At first glance, it may seem bold and enlightened. But in reality, it isn’t.
First of all, the rule doesn’t apply to drinks sold in supermarkets, convenience stores, newsstands or vending machines. It applies only to what New York City calls “food-service establishments” that are regulated by the health department, such as restaurants, movie theaters, ballparks, and delis. It also doesn’t apply to fruit juice that’s at least 70% juice…alcohol…and milk shakes and smoothies that are more than 51% milk, all of which are typically highly caloric and not very nutritious. Plus, many “food-service establishments” offer free refills, so how effective would this ban actually be?
On top of that, it’s too heavy-handed. If I maintain a healthy weight and am not raising anyone’s health-care costs and I want to indulge in a supersized soda once in a while, shouldn’t I be free to make that choice?
The idea of taxing unhealthy food is a little easier to swallow than outright banning certain sizes of sodas, but it’s not the solution, either.
Take Maine, for instance. The state imposed a 5.5% “snack tax” (on ice cream, cookies, cake and such) from 1991 to 2000 (when voters repealed the tax). It didn’t work. In fact, the obesity rate in Maine doubled from 10% to 20% in that time period. It raises the question—would every tax on unhealthy foods or beverages fail to improve health? Or was this tax not high enough?
In May, BMJ published an analysis on the theoretical effectiveness of taxing unhealthy foods. The findings: Taxes would need to be at least 20% to deter people from buying the food.
But until there are real-life success stories that prove the effectiveness of a junk food tax, I remain skeptical. In my mind, it oversimplifies a complicated problem and ends up punishing people who don’t have the money to buy the most nutritious foods. The fact is, eating healthfully is expensive. For example, one recent study done by researchers at University of Washington in Seattle analyzed the prices of 370 supermarket foods and found that junk food is substantially cheaper than healthy food. They found that 2,000 calories (about a day’s worth of calories) from healthy foods costs, on average, $36, while 2,000 calories of junk foods clocks in at just $3.52, on average.
We can’t just make bad-for-you foods more expensive—we need to make healthy foods less expensive.
There’s scientific evidence that it could work. For instance, a study published in 2001 looked at the effects of lowering the price of low-fat snacks in vending machines in schools and workplaces (by 10%, 25% and 50%). The 50% reduction in price led to a 93% increase in sales!
I, for one, would find a “junk food tax” easier to stomach if I knew that the sole use of that tax revenue was to reduce the costs of healthier foods. On top of that, let’s convince political leaders to shift some of the subsidies that support our current unhealthy food system—they are what ultimately lead to ultra-cheap sweeteners and highly processed foods—to reduce the costs and increase the availability of whole, fresh foods.
What do you think? Comment below to share your thoughts!