Tax Bad Food and Ski More

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Is it really worth it?

According to an article in the New York Times this weekend titled “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables ,” the author, Mark Bittman, puts forth a  radical plan. Tax unhealthy food and subsidize vegetables. At first glance, I sagged. Not another tax. People are going to eat junk, regardless of a 20 cent increase in the price of a Coke.

Or would they?

Bittman offers a convincing argument. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, a non-profit organization fighting obesity and weight stigma, cites that a penny an ounce is the right amount of tax for the desired benefit, although Bittman would put it at two pennies per ounce. That’s 64 more cents for a Big Gulp, which, if you’re really, really thirsty, might still be worth it. As long as you don’t mind the extra 400 or so calories.

Just one trip to a shopping mall (or Disneyland or just about anywhere in the Midwest) and a plain fact becomes hard to ignore. Obesity is on the rise. The cheapest food–corn and soy which are used to make high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oil, the stuff that farmers are paid by our government to grow—is used to create junk food. So in a sense our tax money is being used to create an unhealthy, increasingly non-active citizenry while allowing purveyors of junk food all the benefits.

This is just plain wrong.

As much as I would love to bury my head in a snow bank and pretend that the rest of the world longs for active days and a healthy body, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary. Instead of promoting health, our culture promulgates cheap, fast food that might be “finger lickin’ good,” but it also contributes to a myriad of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. What’s the number one way to combat these conditions?

Say it with me now, people: A healthy diet.

In his article, Bittman offers a call to action. Put a heavy tax on sugary sodas and other junk food and use that money to subsidize vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

It’s not as radical as it sounds. Denmark’s saturated fat-tax goes into effect October 1st, and several states already have a tax on soda. In his version, Bittman wants to see an excise tax, one that shows up on the price tag, not just at the cash register.

The Rudd Center website has a calculator that figures the plan’s monetary and human savings. Over the next decade a 20 cent tax on sugary sodas would yield $30 Billion, prevent 400,000 cases of Type 2 diabetes and 1.5 million people from become obese.

This article offers a perfect solution. Hey, if you want to eat junk—if you’re the type that says I’ll eat whatever I please, thank you very much, fine. Go right ahead. The world is overpopulated anyway. But our nation shouldn’t be strapped with your health bill. Nor should our government pay farmers to grow that unhealthy food for you.

I’m all for a healthier citizenry. I vote for eating the right foods, maintaining a healthy body and using it to be active and enjoy life.

Besides, while a Big Mac be delicious, it doesn’t last. Nor will it add much to your overall happiness. But the ability to stand atop a pristine slope, your lungs sucking in the crisp air, your legs ready to piston your skis across the steep snow, your body full of fuel, not poison, is a gift everyone should enjoy.

So let there be a tax on bad food. In my estimation, it will only lead to happier people, more ski days and fewer disease.

And who can argue with that?

Well, maybe you can. What are your thoughts on taxing bad food? Leave a note below by clicking on the “comment” button and join the conversation.

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11 responses »

  1. In an ideal world this could work as a means to curb the obesity problem our country faces. I do feel, however, that this is much like saying if we increase the taxes on alcohol we’ll have fewer alcoholics. I think we know all too well that this is not the case. Until Americans get off of their fat asses and get some exercise, even if it’s walking to the store for their next bag of Cheetoes, we’ll remain the fattest country in the world. It doesn’t help that our government makes it so easy to lay around and get fat. If you’re morbidly obese then you’re disabled… sit at home and collect disability, social security, etc. Let the government through money at you and reinforce the notion that you’re disabled…; and then tax the very thing that made you disabled..?? It seems like a very slippery slope to me.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the premise. The only thing I would add is that all the proceeds from the added tax go to health insurers with the understanding that these added revenues be used to lower the health premiums for those of us who do eat wisely and maintain a healthy lifestyle – exercise, proper diet, etc…
    Good article. Thank you Kim for passing this along

  3. I love it! I’m a Mark Bittman fan and of course I’m sure you’ve read Michael Pollan’s books on the state of food in our country? Also like Clay’s suggestion. But in reality I don’t know, didn’t our state just roll back the pop and candy tax? I did have sympathy for the small, artisan chocolatiers and such. It’s a huge, complicated issue. But insurance companies should do more to benefit those of us who espouse a healthful lifestyle than just give a nonsmoker’s discount. I’ve heard that some are starting to collect data online on our buying patterns to figure out more about us and how we life (right, no more true privacy if you ever use the Net.)

    • Eek. I’m not a fan of my online buying patterns being used as tax incentives. However, if I could save my receipts for a gym membership, say, and get a tax break, I’m all for it. Bittman suggests subsidies on healthy foods, which is also a good idea. And yes, Clay’s suggestion for lowering health insurance for people that really try to stay healthy would be awesome!

  4. Subsidized fruits and vegetables would be awesome! As a single parent who is trying to raise my child with a healthy attitude towards healthy eating, I would love to see the cost of fruits and vegetables come down significantly. I for one would have no qulams about all of the major fast food corporations taking a dive in profits, especially if it were because of a tax that helps to subsidize food that is actually good for you.

  5. I agree and disagree. Something definitely needs to be done about the obesity issue in the country and the financial burden it’s causing, and I’m not really against taxing bad food- but I don’t think it will stop people from eating it. I know that if am really in the mood for something bad for me, then I will pay the extra $1 and buy it.
    It’s true that fruits/veggies are super expensive, and most poor people can’t afford them, the cheapest foods are the processed, packaged foods – and that’s what food banks usually hand out. A better plan would be to use the fat food tax to subsidize our health insurance (like someone else said), The government already subsidizes fruits and veggies…they pay farmer NOT to grow, in order to keep the prices artificially high. So in my simple mind, if they stopped some of the farm subssidies, more veggies for less money.
    if they tracked our spending, I would just buy all the fattening food with cash….. 🙂

    • Suz,
      I agree about the farm subsidies. Another reader sent me an interesting link from the WSJ. Apparently, farm prices are at a record high, and the stagger amount of subsidies has been greatly reduced. Many experts predict we’ve seen the end of farm subsidies. It’s an interesting read. I agree that a tax won’t stop people from buying a bag of Cheetos. But if that tax allowed your local grocer (or more impactfully, your corner mini-mart) to sell fresh fruit and veggies at a lower price, that might induce more healthy eating. Food for thought.

      • Interesting article- I’m curious if they’ll actually do away with them altogether since the prices are so high right now. There needs to be a lot of education involved in the healthy eating process too- I remember when I was in nursing school doing my public health rotation, and we worked with a food bank to teach people about healthy foods, proper portion sizes. I went into a predominantly hispanic school to teach some kids- and it was amazing at what they didn’t know. Not that they knew apples were good and choose the cheetos instead, but just didn’t know any better. It’s sad- and with the expensive vegetable prices, the poor people can’t afford the healthy foods.

  6. Well, you asked, so please bear with me on my rant.

    I find the concept of sin-taxes (junk-food tax, smoking tax, etc..) to be completely antithetical to the outdoor ethos. They reek of “Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax the fellow behind the tree”. I reckon that readers of this blog tend to be outdoor enthusiasts. Those who enjoy skiing (torn ACL/MCLs aren’t cheap), rock-climbing (torn ligaments, anyone?), road-biking (who do you think pays to fix broken collarbones?), mountain-biking (where to even start with the injuries here), para-gliding (can be quite literally a “back-breaking” endeavor), etc…

    I’m a randonneur. Should I pay an additional tax every time I risk life and limb by voluntarily riding my bike 800 miles at night and semi-sleep-deprived? Of course I’m eating junk-food along the way. Do I need to pay a tax on that, because it makes someone else fat? Or must I prove my 20KCal/day burn rate to the IRS to offset my junk-food tax?

    I think you see where I’m going with this. Sin-taxes fly in the face of the personal responsibility that we outdoor enthusiasts at least pretend to believe in.

    They’re also bad policy purely from an economic standpoint. Complex tax policy lends itself to poor compliance.

    And even bad policy from a health perspective! Does anybody here /really think/ that our elected officials know what constitutes healthy eating? Here’s a suggestion: google “food pyramid”, and take a look at what the government has recommended for us to eat in the past. And somebody remind me: are eggs good now? Or bad? Cause expert opinion changes every couple years. Remember when the government told us to eat margarine instead of butter, and carbs instead of fat? What about fruit juice? More calories per oz. than sugar soda! I do not want the government (which is corruptible (witness the USDA) and very slow to correct its mistakes) to try to micro-manage my diet.

    Let’s not forget that it is /precisely/ the government, through tax-policy, that encouraged the consumption of junk food to begin with. Tax incentives for corn growers. Tax incentives for farmers not to grow other foods. Tax incentives for processed food. If you want to discourage the use of HFCS, the solution is to simplify tax policy, end tax subsidies, and let the market (all of us) figure out how to take care of ourselves.

    OK rant over!

    • shuffman,
      Thanks for your response. I love a good rant. Bittman’s article does talk about getting rid of farm subsidies, so you two (and I) agree on that. You’re right when you say that a complex tax policy isn’t necessarily the solution. Washington state recently voted down a tax on soda and candy, so I’m not sure the idea is really gaining any traction. But I, for one, think there’s something that our government can do to address the obesity problem. Look at our anti-smoking campaigns. When you travel to any other part of the world, it becomes obvious that Americans and Canadians smoke way less than anyone else. Why couldn’t we do the same with junk food? I’m sure the tobacco lobbyists didn’t like the anti-smoking campaign. Who cares if Coke and Pepsi don’t like it. And, really, is paying an extra .20 for a Coke in order to make Granny Smith Apples cheaper really going to hurt anyone?

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