Would taxes on junk food promote healthier eating?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
According to a study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, when the price of junk food goes up, people eat less of it, their weight goes down, and blood sugar levels improve.

The study, which is described in more detail here, followed over 5,000 people for a period of 20 years, tracking their food consumption, height, weight, and blood sugar levels. Researchers also tracked changes in food prices during this same period, and found that incremental increases in the prices of soda and delivery pizza were associated with incremental decreases in consumption of these items. For every 10% increase in cost, there was a 7% decrease in the number of soda calories consumed, and an 11.5% decrease in pizza calories consumed. Likewise, a one dollar increase in soda cost was associated with a decrease in overall calorie intake of 124 calories per day (on average), and a decrease in body weight (2.2 pounds on average). This was true even though the “real” cost of soda and delivery pizza actually decreased over the 20 year period when prices were adjusted for inflation.

Does this mean that we can (or should) use taxes and/or surcharges on junk food items to encourage people to use less them of them?

Using the numbers obtained in their study, the authors suggested that an 18% surcharge on soda and delivery pizza alone could reduce average daily calorie consumption by 56 calories per person per day, which would mean a weight loss of 5 pounds per person over a year. But I don’t think things are quite that simple. As this article indicates, weight loss is a lot more complex than simple arithmetic, so you can’t simply assume that a small reduction in calorie intake like 56 calories per day will translate into a predictable amount of weight loss over time for every individual. Or that every individual who drinks 100 calories of soda per day will gain 10 pounds every year. Therefore, predicting the actual effects of a “junk food tax” on rates of obesity and related health issues is pretty difficult.

But we do know from the real-world experience of taxing tobacco that this approach can significantly reduce use of the product and lead to better health for many people. And there’s not much doubt that public health can benefit from using the funds raised by these taxes for various health promotion efforts, like promoting the use of regular water instead of soda or other caloric drinks, and healthier alternatives to fast foods, chips and cookies. Such efforts may at least help offset the social and individual effects of major advertising campaigns promoting fast food, soda, and junk foods, and provide the kind of knowledge people need to take more responsibility for their own choices and their own health.

There are lots of other questions involved in deciding whether a tax on certain foods and products is good public policy when it comes to combating the obesity epidemic and improving public health, especially when the products involved can be used safely by most people, in moderate quantities. Too much government interference in realms of personal choice is not a good idea. But at the same time, government policies (see Marion Nestle’s book or blog Food Politics if you’re interested in the details) have always played a huge role in shaping our food industry, and maybe it’s time for government to start correcting some of the problems those policies have created.

What do you think?

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I vote tax rebate for eating clean! :) Report
Though it may not be monetary, each person who eats too much junk food is already imposing a huge tax upon themselves. Report
No tax on junk food. Not because you think it would deter someone from consuming it, but because it is unconstitutional!!! Be very careful. The next liberty lost will be yours. Report
I think where as it's a good thing, it's also a bad thing that punishes the poor for being poor. A pizza is 2 dollars for a full pizza, chicken breast is 5 dollars a pound, salads are about 2 dollars a salad after you figure in the cost of veggies... so for a healthy meal it's about 7 dollars at the least, where as a pizza is 2 dollars. People who are poor enough, will buy the pizza because at least they are getting full off of it and can afford it........ Not everyone can afford healthy food, as the prices for it are outrageous.

If you raise the prices for junk food, people are still going to buy the cheaper food... if you lower the prices of healthy food... people are still going to buy the cheaper food. So the point is... lower the prices of healthy food, then if you want to talk about taxing junk food it makes sense. But until then you're just making poor people more poor. Report
we don't need taxes on junk food-who is going to decide what is 'junk' and where to draw the line? what about baked potato chips? or diet soda?
and no we don't need subsidies on eating healthy. No body OWES us anything for taking care of our own bodies~ Report
I like the idea of giving a subsidy for eating healthy. Report
I have not read all of the comments and am not sure if this has been brought up yet but here goes. This is still a free country. If people choose to eat fast foods and 'not so healthy foods' they are still free to do that. I choose to be healthy but it should in no way be forced on everyone. Unless of course, you have an interest in government health care...then, who wants to pay for someone else's health issues because of their 'choices'. Be careful, they will not stop at your fast food. You will not be free to smoke or drink either. I do not do these things but believe that unless we are all free (even those whose choices I do not agree with), none of us are free. A tax on unhealthy foods will only hurt those who can't afford 'healthy foods' also. Not a good idea. Report
Idea good but will it work? Report
Washington state just imposed a tax on candy and soft drinks. I don't think it has detoured even one person from purchasing that soda pop or the bag of M&M's
Maybe the tax needs to be as high as our cigarette tax to make a difference? Report
NO. The government never uses the money for what they say. We have the LOTTO in Florida that was suppose to HELP schools. Instead, now the state gives LESS money to the schools and the LOTTO makes up for that so we have no more NOW than before, but some other places get the state money, so it didn't help. Report
Eeeeeh, I don't know. an 18% tax on a 1.00 candy bar isn't going to stop too many people. But 18% on a 20.00 pizza order? I don't get pizza enough that it would deter me, but if I were a habitual pizza orderer, I might think twice about it. The problem is that eventually, the shock of the tax wears off. It's like when you order pizza and there's a delivery charge. You grumble about it, but then you kind of forget it. Report
Let them tax it all, they will eventually anyway. All I really want is for food places to offer more "good for us" products. Example: Less pricey fresh produce, less choice of "crap" foods. AND for manufacturers to stop dumping in any old ingredients, to go back to basics. I don't see how any company can make money when they spend it all developing new additives or flavorings. Just use the food that God provides! Report
What would be cool is a healthy food choice subsidy. Think of this. The US Government subsidizes highly processed junk food for children. The food's cheap. that is an abomination. Flavored milk, which is as caloric as soda, is promoted as a way to get kids calcium.

Despite the high price of cigarettes, lots and lots of people still smoke. I'm not convinced that taxing twinkies is the answer.

I woule rather see programs that reward you for healthy purchases rather than penalizing you for bad ones.

People will do what they do, and if healthy food choices were rewarded in some way, perhaps people might make better choices. Report
Works well in denmark, we don't eat mcdonalds like in it's home land as is too expensive.. We only have one mcdonalds in Randers and I have been here since 1992, Wendys and all the other joints I don't think denmark is worth many chains.. The tax system makes it difficult for them to spread like wildfire.. Moms on cars- well you buy one pay for two and the same is for junkfood and will get be worst if our govenment members gives the thumbs up to the newest law bills.. I also hope they drop tax on healthy food, give people a carrot to make the change even more.. Report
I don't think taxing less healthy foods in itself would make a difference.

But I think it could help if that tax income were ring fenced for fighting obesity. So the cost of subsidising healthy food and exercise programs for people on low-middle incomes could be met partly or wholly by tax income from unhealthy food.

If the tax income just gets swallowed up in the big pot of government finances it would only have a minimal impact, IMO. Report
The author of the "Eat This, Not That" series was on one of the major morning news shows the other day and stated that they wanted to tax sugary drinks by the ounce (something like a penny tax per ounce), but it leaves so much gray area. This includes: soft drinks, a variety of sports drinks, fruit punches, some juices, etc. I have actually had a doctor tell me to drink sports drinks when ill or make sure that I drink "real" lemon-lime soda, nothing diet during that time. Many diabetics that have issues with crashing blood sugar are often times told to alternate sips of regular cola with an ounce of cheese. Will we need a script to avoid these taxes? When it comes to other foods such as pizza, it isn't all horridly bad for you. A thin crust loaded with veggies and light on the cheese...better than many other restaurant alternatives. I am COMPLETELY on board with making America a healthier place, but I do not see a junk food tax making a big dent in the health of our nation. Why not make healthier alternatives more purse friendly? Report
Taxing the manufacturers or the restaurants who SELL these items might change things - but taxing individuals doesn't work. If it did, the enormous cigarette taxes and liquor taxes would have curbed consumption. Now, if you make it less profitable, then fewer items might be sold. We are a capitalist country, after all. It all comes down to the $$ Report
I haven't read through all the comments (too many!), but I think that yes, taxing junk food is a GREAT idea and wold help people to eat healthier. Raising the prices (significantly) on junk food would do the trick as well. When you consider that a 4 litres of milk is at least four times as expensive as 2 litres of pop, it's no wonder obesity is an epidemic. Report
Perhaps others have said this, but I haven't seen the high taxes on cigarettes stop my friends who smoke from smoking. They just stop smoking the big brands and buy cheaper brands. Taxes on liquor in this state are pretty high, and people still drink. I don't mind paying taxes as long as the money is going to infrastructure/education/the greater good. Report
It there were taxes or the junk food, where would that leave us and who would these funds go to?! We all eat junk food at one time or another, however it won't stop us! I agree, would rather see lower prices on healthy choices! Report
I'd rather see the price of healthy foods drop, than see a tax on junk food. I agree that taxing junk food will not make a difference except to those in low income brackets. For the rest, we'd probably just take the money from another part of our budget...like giving to charities. Okay, so maybe that's a bit harsh, but potentially true. Report
Taxes are great for making a bigger more out of control government...like Obama's....but ultimately only hurt the people at the bottom....tax on junk food would only cause more money to be wasted.... Report
Punitive taxation is subjective and probably doesn't work in the long run. I think we need to focus on developing healthy habits at an early and impressionable age with healthier, fresher school lunch programs, community gardens, and more nutritional education. Report
Where would the taxation end? People have the choice to consume what they want, healthy or not. Hopefully we make healhty choices and enjoy the less healthy foods and drinks in moderation. It is not the government's job to regulate what I eat or to penalize private industry. Less government is a good thing. Report
Sure, whatever food costs more, folks eat less. But achieving this price differential by TAXATION is PATHETIC. Not the government's job, read the Constitution. These eating & lifestyle changes have to be market driven. If people rarely buy junk food, it will cost more to make so it WILL cost more! Telling people no just doesn't work. Really, AA was founded 2 years after Prohibition ended. You don't think ALL those adults became hardcore alcoholics in 2 years? No, they'd never stopped drinkin. Report
I think that whoever came up with this idea is a freak! I don't want the goverment to "punish" me because I like to eat junk food. Taxing foods is in essence rounding up a group of people and pointing the finger saying "your bad so you pay". Legislation like this really terrifies me. The more laws , taxes, etc you allow the more control someone has over you. Report
I believe that we should tax that stuff. Have a panel of registered dietitians and other nutrition experts decide what is "junk", and tax it to high heaven. I want to see kids stop eating junk. If it's too expensive, they won't be able to afford it. Mom and Dad will have a harder time saying "yes" in the checkout line to junk if it is just too expensive.

Taxes are a good way to deter bad choices. Report
New Mexico quit taxing groceries and is looking at taxing them again. Increased taxes on tobacco have led to hard core smokers cutting down on their purchases of food to uy smokes. Now the powers to be are looking at taxing flour tortillas, a staple for many New Mexicans which will only lead to the tortillas being made at home with LARD! I fail to see how adding taxes to foods will improve ones' diet. If a person chooses junk food, they will eat it regardless!. Report
Taxing may deter some but it may not deter all. And isn't part of the problem with "healthy" foods (especially dining out) was the cost was more? So instead of fixing that issue taxing junk food is the solution? I don't know..how much tax and what if you already pay tax for junk food, will they add more? People will have to make their own decisions in the end about their health, but also based on what produce/products they can afford. Report
it's hard to say. in NJ, tax on cancer sticks is thru the roof, but i have heard very few people say they were quitting b/c it was too expensive. However there are drugs in cigarettes that make smoking addictive, that junk food does not have. They just TASTE yummy!

So can people give up something that tastes good but is not addicitve b/c it's expensive? On 1 hand I think it's a great idea & definately worth a shot. It might help American's eat less junk. The other hand we are 'punishing' the junk food industry for making their product. Doesn't seem fair to them.

Would be interesting to find out though, what the outcome would be Report
I don't think taxing junk food will really help. It make some feel like the government is traying to take over again. There are too many issues the government is trying to take over that should be part of our freedom to be a U.S. Citizen and I think adding more tax on junk food will just make a lot of people REALLY angry.

What would really help is to have more commercials, t.v. shows, radio commercials, video games, billboards, etc. promoting healthy living and healthy eating habits more. How many times have we sat in front of the t.v. and their were 10 commercials about pizza, and doritos and pepsi but not any on healthy food or healthy living. How many t.v programs do we watch were the actors are eating pizza rather than a salad.

Since many people think or assume that t.v. influences how we react and behave in the real world, then more should be done on t.v. that promotes healthier life styles. I also believe there should be more education in schools. And make more of the "junk foods" healthier, like with whole grain instead of flour, or splenda intead of sugar, or baked instead of fried.

If there were more advertising and more companies would start promoting healthier foods and life styles, if the schools had more education about eating healthy and living healthy from pre-K through 12 (make it a mandetory class every year), and the companies that make the "junk food" started making their foods with healthier ingredients, I really believe that would help and benefit more people than taxing "junk food" would. Report
In my state ( North Carolina) there are differing levels of sales tax on food products and non-food products. Most foods( with the exceptions of some sodas and single sized candies) are taxed at 2% while non food sales tax is generally around 6.75-7,75%( counties can add to the sales tax to generate extra revenue for themselves). But I do think that if all "junk" food was taxed at the non-food level and if healthier alternatives were actually not taxed at all would promote more healthier eating habits in some individuals. I also think that one thing that could also help would be if government programs such as food stamps did not allow any "junk" foods to be purchased with government funds would help as well. I work as a cashier in a super center retail store and it amazes me how much junk people buy with their food stamps or EBT funds rather than spending that money on better food choices for themselves and families Report
Better yet how about removing HFCS and MSG from all or even most of products? How about feeding our children healthy meals at school for some kids these are the only real meals that they get. How about making food labels honest by listing all ingredients in english and make the serving sizes actual? There are so many things that can be done to help people make better choices I don't think taxing is one of them. Report
Wouldn't it make more sense to make healthy foods more affordable and available in all areas?? Everyone should have access to fresh produce shouldn't they? Report
I think like every other compulsive behavior those that have it the worst will continue to do it no matter how much it cost. Therefore I feel a tax on junk food will not help those that need it the most. When I was a smoker I was also very tight with my money yet somehow I always found enough for my addiction. Making the price wouldn't have helped me quit or even cut down. Plus there are people like me that tend to gain the most of my weight on normal foods not "junk food". Plus who gets to decide what is and what isn't considered "junk food"? Report
Just think what would happen if EVERYONE suddenly only ate healthy food, we would run out of produce right away. The US already imports tons of produce just for the people who already eat lots of it. Plus, the economy would take a dive, think of stores that have more than 3/4 products one could deem "unhealthy", restaurants, bakeries, etc. And then, more laws would have to be in place, more rules, and people to uphold the new "rules", and on and on. What would all the out of work people do, give fitness demonstrations? I can see the arguments and protesting in the streets already. The rich would win, per usual though. Report
Why does the individual consumer have to be taxed? Places in europe require business to prove if their food is junk or not. If the food is considered junk by the governing board the BUISNESS gets taxed, and they get taxed a LOT. These regions see better food choices being offered by "junky" corperations. I believe as well that if we increase tax's on junk food we MUST lower the cost of healthier food to balance out the scale since many people can barely afford the dollar menu at McD's let alone a full salad. Report
Taxing junk food is not going to get people to stop eating it. We need to inform the public about portion sizes more then anything else. It's ridiculous the portions of food we are consuming. To be honest, I think that the reason that the people in the study changed the way they ate do to getting older and their preferences of food choices changed. I still eat junk food, but I count out my servings and I know the nutrition value of the food and I manage to lose weight doing so. Report
People have too much love for junk food. When stressed, what do we eat? Unhealthy food. Not apples and oranges. It won't matter how much tax would be imposed because eventually we will buy them. Report
Tax away, I say. And I love junk food...but should I want to buy it...I think I should be required to pay more. I've heard over and over and over again that "I can't afford to eat healthy" (which in many cases is not truly the case). If junk food was less affordable, maybe people would choose the healthier versions. The obesity rate for children is skyrocketing in this country (and around the world). IMO, a major factor is all the junk food in the diet. I know of children who ONLY eat junk & fast food day after day. It isn't healthy even for those children not overweight. Unfortunately many parents are NOT doing a good job of helping their children learn healthy habits, and it is costing the rest of us because of the increase in childhood health issues (and adult issues) so why not take the tax money to help combat some of these issues which are preventable and/or at least helped by healthier lifestyles. Report
My dad used to say that the best way to make somebody do something is to hurt their pockets. That has proven to be true over and over... so maybe that will be the most efficient way to get an entire population to be healthy, and to stop shoveling bad foods into their kids too.
I'm totally for it! Report
I don't know what to think. Last week I went home (Switzerland) and I was surprised: A few years ago McDonald opened in my little village of 15000 people. They had to close the place because people did not like the food. This time I saw McDonald had open a place again and to my amazement it was packed! McDonald offered hamburgers for $2.50. When you go to a conventual restaurant, even the cheap ones inside grocery stores you pay $3.00 for a cup of coffee, and you won't get anything to eat for less than $6.00.
Taxing junk food 100% and subsidizing organic biodiversity would probably work.. Report
a tax(gst) was intoduced in Canada a number of years ago. While it didn't specifically target junk food, it is added to all prepared food and ones that are concidered unhealthy. It is hard to determine what is healthy or not. Chocolate milk at the time was one of the questionable foods. Junk food purchases have not gone down. We make our own choices. If we really want to spend the $3 on the doritos, an extra few cents in a tax won't matter. Then it becomes a tax grab, not a healthy encouragement.

Schools should offer nutrition and cooking classes, not as part of the school day, but maybe as an after school club. And start them at a young age. That would be a way better, long term solution to the problem of eating habits Report
I'd rather see a TAX CREDIT for health memberships! Report
This is a hot button issue for me given the proposed soda tax in NY. I think it may be a good start, but it needs to go hand in hand with education. The idea of course being that the money would go to fund worthwile projects and not just get lost in the already overbloated government. People need to start knowing and CARING about what their doing to their bodies and their children but unfortunately there isn't any easy answer to get a nation to change. Report
I agree with the people above who are against taxing food, even junk food. Lowering prices for the healthier stuff would be great as someone else said. The comment about coupons for fruits and veggies is great too. We sure do not need more taxes of any sort. Report
Absotlutely! Tax away! Make the healthy choice the easy choice. Report
Why not charge these companies with a crime (e.g., endangering the public, poisoning the food supply, distributing dangerous weapons without a license). Treat them like illicit drug dealers. Report
Tax away please and put the money toward health care. Report
People buy more junk because it is usually cheaper than healthier options. If junk became more expensive, then maybe less people would buy it. Report
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