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In today's Media Mix, Yankees 'Craft Beer' stand controversy, plus John DeLucie's new project
The Daily Meal brings you the biggest news from the food world.
Yankees' 'Craft Beer': Turns out, the "Craft Beer Destination" stand at Yankee Stadium is more of a Blue Moon, Crispin cider, big beer destination. [OPB]
McDonald's Settles Muslim Lawsuit: After a Detroit resident sued the brand for false advertising, after eating a chicken sandwich he found was not halal, the franchise owner decided to settle and avoid court. [Examiner]
John DeLucie Opening Chelsea Restaurant: DeLucie's Crown Group is reportedly in talks to open a casual Italian café in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, complete with outdoor seating. [Grub Street]
Junk Food Tax: Here's an infographic supporting the junk food tax, showing how it will affect government income and obesity. [Visual.ly]
Free Beer for Jobs: A man is offering his work ethic and a ton of free beer to anyone who will offer him a job. [New Zealand Herald]
How Junk Food Taxes Work and More News - Recipes
Our communities are drowning in a swamp of unhealthy junk food and beverages, leading to an epidemic of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and tooth decay. Added sugars in our food and drinks are a major threat to public health. And healthy food can be expensive and hard to find in many places.
Healthy Food America is on the frontlines of the fight to ensure that all people have access to healthy, nutritious food and are less exposed to unhealthy junk foods.
We support community leaders across the nation who are advocating for policies and strategies like soda taxes and healthy food incentives to make healthy eating easier for all Americans.
We share the latest research and cutting edge policy and advocacy strategies so advocates can act on the best information and science to drive change in policy, food environments and industry practices. Read more about us.
New Tool: Compare Sugary Drink Tax Policies
A tax on sugary drinks can raise revenue for programs communities want and reduce consumption of an unhealthy product. Learn more!
Taxing sugary drinks has emerged as an important healthy food and chronic disease prevention policy. Sugary drink taxes generate substantial revenues to address community needs and reduce sales of sugary drinks. Yet they must do more. A well-designed tax promotes health and social equity by benefiting the people most harmed by the beverage industry’s sugary drink products and predatory marketing practices. It invests revenues in these impacted communities and gives them a strong role in deciding how to use tax revenues.
This brief contains recommendations for designing sugary drink taxes so they promote equity from the Sugary Drink Tax Equity Workgroup. It recommends critical components of equitable tax policy design including the rationale and considerations for each recommendation. Visit our Sugary Drink Tax Equity page for the full report, an infographic and more.
HFA has just updated profiles of the sugary drink taxes that are being implemented in seven US cities and Mexico. Learn more about how the taxes work, how they were adopted, how much revenue they are raising and what the revenues are being used for.
A spokesman from the Treasury said it would not shy away from further action, including tax changes, if the food industry "fails to face up to the scale of the problem through voluntary reduction programmes".
Kate Halliwell, head of UK diet and health policy at the Food and Drink Federation, said some manufacturers had been reducing sugar and calorie content in shopping baskets for more than a decade.
But she cautioned that changing recipes for food products could not happen overnight.
"Sugar plays a variety of roles beyond sweetness in food including colour, texture and consistency.
"It is for these reasons that we have long said that the guidelines are ambitious and will not be met across all categories or in the timescale outlined."
And she said portion control and product reformulation, rather than taxes, were policies more likely to change consumer behaviour.
"Food and drink companies should focus efforts where they can have the maximum impact, instead of managing the impact of wrong-headed legislation."
Meanwhile, the government has announced £3.13bn will be given to councils in England next year for public health initiatives, such as stop smoking services, weight management services and exercise support.
It Took a Court to Decide Whether Pringles Are Potato Chips
As it turns out, this salty snack has quite a story. It once was in the middle of a massive controversy that questioned the ingredients and whether the chips were actually potato chips at all.
From 2007 to 2009, the makers of the "once-you-pop-you-can't-stop" chips stood in front of three different levels of the British judiciary trying to defend the decision that Pringles chips were not — by definition — potato chips.
Here's how this comically complicated problem started. In the mid-20th century, a tax was born by way of France and England called the value-added or VAT tax. This "consumption tax" started off as a 10 percent tax on all goods bought from a business. More than 20 percent of the world's tax revenue comes from the value-added tax making it a pretty big deal.
In Britain, most foods are exempt from the value-added tax, except for potato chips or "similar products made from the potato, or from potato flour." This led to a long, arduous journey to figure out whether or not Pringles (which, by the way, were touted at one time as the "newfangled potato chip") were actually potato chips. If they were ruled as chips, Pringles' parent company at the time, Procter & Gamble, would be subject to a 17.5 percent VAT tax.
Procter & Gamble's initial argument was that, no, Pringles were not potato chips because they didn't "contain enough potato to have the quality of 'potatoness.'" (Is that even a word?) They also argued Pringles didn't resemble the shape of a potato chip and were more along the lines of a "savory snack."
In 2008, a lower British court agreed and ruled that Pringles were in fact not potato chips, mainly because they contained only 42 percent potato and had "a shape not found in nature." But just a year later, the Court of Appeal re-examined and reversed that decision, calling Procter & Gamble's argument that the ingredients of a product don't define the product "hogwash."
With that decision, the behemoth corporation had to pay $160 million in taxes, while — begrudgingly — calling their newfangled potato chips, well, potato chips. And that is the story of Pringles and its brief dance with the world of taxes, junk food and British judges.
For the record, Pringles are still considered potato chips and probably always should because . they're made from potatoes.
Should We Tax Unhealthy Foods?
What does a 20-ounce bottle of soda cost? If you said 99 cents, you are only partly right. While that may be the price on the sticker at the store, it doesn’t take into account the cost to public health. One study, for example, found for every extra can of soda a person drinks per day, he or she is 30 percent more likely to become obese—increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
“Diet is now the leading cause of poor health in the country,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, who notes health-care costs account for nearly one out of every five dollars in our national economy.
Yet when cities and states have tried to enact so-called snack taxes on soda, candy and other junk food, they’ve met resistance. Conservatives greet such attempts as evidence of the “nanny state” limiting personal choice, while hunger groups view the taxes as discriminatory against the poor, who consume more high-calorie foods.
That doesn’t mean the policy of taxing foods should be abandoned, says Mozaffarian. In fact, as he argued in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association last fall, it doesn’t go far enough. Along with Boston Children’s Hospital obesity researcher David Ludwig and Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, Mozaffarian expanded on the snack tax by proposing across-the-board food taxes combined with key food subsidies.
“We propose taxing pretty much everything with a food label or sold in chain restaurants,” explains Mozaffarian, recommending a flat tax of anywhere between 10 and 30 percent. At the same time, he and his co-authors propose dramatically lowering the prices on unimpeachably healthy foods. “The modest tax would be used to subsidize minimally processed, mostly whole foods that the scientific evidence demonstrates are clearly healthy, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, vegetable oils and yogurt.” The taxes would also support school lunch programs.
The radical step comes out of research Mozaffarian did on different strategies for improving diet, published by the American Heart Association last year. “It showed us that education and knowledge alone have a pretty minimal effect,” he says. On the other hand, “there is strong evidence that taxes reduce consumption, while subsidies increase consumption.”
It's Public Safety
He compares changing food choices to efforts to reduce fatalities from car accidents over recent decades. “Did we simply say, ‘Car accidents happen let’s just educate people about the risks’? No. We instituted driver’s licensing, car crash standards, antilock brakes, airbags, guard rails, speed limits and rumble strips, as well as seat belt, child seat and motorcycle helmet laws,” he says. “The food system is just as complex—we need to use all the tools at our disposal to address the consumer, industry, food environment and food culture to be successful.”
By providing subsidies for healthy foods, the proposal would avoid challenges that food taxes are punitive or regressive. “The subsidy in the beginning would be very large,” he says. “Imagine an apple might cost 5 cents, a filet of salmon 25 cents. It would radically alter incentives for producers, retailers, restaurants and the public.” While those bargains would be offset by modestly higher prices on processed foods, Mozaffarian believes that with healthier choices, the average grocery bill for families could stay the same or even decrease—while at the same time reducing family medical costs.
Originally, Mozaffarian and Ludwig considered taxing foods at different amounts depending on their healthfulness. However, economist Rogoff counseled that such a scheme would be too open to lobbying by food companies for exemptions, undermining the system. Instead, the idea is to start with a simple flat tax, and later introduce scaled taxes to further increase incentives for food companies and restaurants to create healthier offerings.
“If Pepsi can sell an apple with ‘Pepsi’ on it and make the same amount of money as soda, they would be delighted to do that,” says Mozaffarian. “I believe that over five to 10 years, it would transform the food system.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.
How Junk Food Works
There are few things in this world more delicious than a Snickers bar. Notice how your tongue begins to tingle and mouth fills with saliva while you're still unwrapping the darn thing. Then that first bite, an intoxicating tsunami of sweet, salty, rich and creamy, lighting up the pleasure centers in your brain like Times Square. And there's only one way to keep the thrill alive − another bite.
Junk food is a miracle of edible engineering. It has no equal in the natural world − or else we'd all have a Twinkie tree in the backyard − and has been fine-tuned to deliver pure pleasure through generous combinations of fat, sugar and salt. Not only does junk food taste amazing, but it's also cheap, fast and available in every fast-food restaurant, grocery store, gas station, truck stop, movie theater and vending machine in America − and increasingly, around the world.
There's only one problem with junk food: It's junk. Junk food, by definition, is food that contains little or no nutritional value while delivering staggering amounts of calories in the form of fat, sugar and salt. Most junk food falls into the category of candy, salty snack foods, high-fat dairy, packaged sweets, baked goods and sugary soft drinks.
Junk food is what we call "empty calories," loading our body with excess energy (mostly stored as fat) without the dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals our bodies need to promote healthy development and fight disease.
Is fast food junk food? Not necessarily. One could argue that a Big Mac has nutritional value because it provides 24 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber and 25 percent of your calcium. However, at 530 calories, the Big Mac also delivers 48 percent of your saturated fat for the day and 40 percent of your sodium [source: McDonald's]. Pair that with a large order of fries and a Coke and you quickly understand why most, if not all, fast food qualifies as junk food.
So who first discovered how much we love these unnatural treats?
The history of junk food and fast food is wrapped up in the industrialization of America. Before the early 1800s, food was almost exclusively prepared in the home and made with minimally processed ingredients grown locally and harvested seasonally. That's not to say that people ate healthy and varied diets, but the very idea of junk food − highly processed, commercially manufactured snacks − didn't exist.
Andrew F. Smith, a food historian and author of "Fast Food and Junk Food: An Encyclopedia of What We Love to Eat", credits the industrialization of flour mills in the 1820s with the launch of the junk food era [source: Smith]. Innovations in milling technology and improvements in transportation brought inexpensive white flour to the masses. Even today, cheap white flour is the foundation of low-fiber, high-carbohydrate burger buns, cookies and snack cakes.
During the American Civil War (the 1860s), troops grew accustomed to eating from cans and jars of mass-produced rations. They came home craving the same convenience and familiar tastes. The rise of the industrial factory drew people away from farms and into the city. Food vendors parked their carts outside the factory gates, offering the first "fast foods" to hungry workers [source: Smith].
The first great American junk food was Cracker Jack, a salty-sweet blend of popcorn, molasses and peanuts introduced by brothers Frederick and Louis Rueckheim at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 [source: Fernandez]. The recipe wasn't a novelty, but the Rueckheim brothers' true genius was marketing − a prize in every box! − and their trademark wax seal packaging. By 1916, Cracker Jack was the best-selling snack in the world [source: Smith].
The history of soft drinks goes all the way back to 17th-century Europe, where carbonated water was first mixed with lemon juice and honey for a bubbly sweet concoction [source: Korab]. In America, the first batches of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola syrup were mixed at pharmacy counters in the 1880s and 1890s and sold as a refreshing, healthy elixir to aid digestion [sources: The Coca-Cola Company, Pepsi-Cola].
The emergence of fast food was fueled by the rise of automobile culture and the suburbanization of American cities in the 1950s [source: Smith]. Originally a convenient novelty, ordering a burger and fries at the "drive-thru" soon became an American institution.
The second half of the 20th century witnessed explosive growth in the variety, affordability and ubiquity of junk food and fast food. Innovations in manufacturing, packaging, transporting and marketing junk food − particularly to children − turned a rare treat into a steady diet for millions. And all the big companies employ an army of food scientists who know just how to get us coming back for more.
There's a reason why it's called a Happy Meal − junk food is extremely pleasurable. And that's not an accident. Junk food has been carefully engineered by food scientists and snack manufacturers to hit the "sweet spot" that keeps us wanting more, and more, and (gobble, gobble) more.
It starts in the mouth. One of the distinguishing characteristics of all great junk food is mouthfeel. Cheetos are famous − or infamous, depending who you ask −for delivering explosive cheesy flavor without the heavy, greasy mouthfeel of actual cheese. Instead of tasting like the salty fat bombs they are, Cheetos literally melt in your mouth.
One food scientist calls this vanishing caloric density [source: Moss]. Your brain relies partially on mouthfeel to determine how many calories are in a particular food. By melting into nothingness, Cheetos trick you into eating the whole bag.
Fast food cashes in on the same mouthfeel science. A meal of a hamburger and fries is undeniably fatty, and your mouth knows it. But food scientists have discovered that the potentially unpleasant mouthfeel of greasy fries is perfectly balanced out by the astringent quality of carbonated beverages [source: Cuda Kroen]. And bonus points for balancing salty with sweet!
The food industry spends tens of millions of dollars a year researching and developing the ideal combinations of mouthfeel and crunch that keep us coming back for more. Apparently there's a $40,000 artificial chewing device that calculates the exact amount of pressure required to devour a chip (the perfect crunch: 4 pounds per square inch) [source: Moss].
Junk food science also owes a lot of credit to evolutionary biology. The brains of modern humans evolved in a place and time when daily life was consumed by the search for more calories. As omnivores, we can physically digest a wide variety of foods, but not all foods are calorically equal. Meat, for example, delivers many more calories per bite than leaves.
To feed ourselves most efficiently, the brain evolved ways to quickly identify the most calorie-dense foods. And it still does, even though food scarcity is no longer an issue. When hunger strikes and we stand in the kitchen choosing between an apple and a bag of potato chips, a region of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex screams, "Chips, you fool! We could die tomorrow!" [source: Tedesco].
Health Effects of Junk Food
The overconsumption of junk food has been directly connected to higher rates of obesity and increased risks of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and even depression.
A diet that's high in sugar, simple carbohydrates (white flour, potatoes, sugary drinks) and saturated fat is one of the chief causes of the obesity epidemic. More than one-third of American adults are obese, and kids are following the trend. An alarming 21 percent of adolescents 12 to 19 years old are obese, as are 18 percent of children 6 to 11 years old − double the obesity rates from the 1980s [sources: CDC, CDC].
What's the connection between Type 2 diabetes and junk food? Americans, on average, consume 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, much of it in the form of high-fructose corn syrup served up in soft drinks and candy bars [source: Boseley]. When the body breaks down these simple carbohydrates, blood sugar levels spike. That forces the pancreas to quickly release insulin so that cells can absorb and store those sugars. Frequent blood sugar spikes eventually wear out the body's insulin-producing cells, triggering Type 2 diabetes [source: Harvard School of Public Health].
Type 2 diabetes carries a host of health complications including heart disease, painful nerve damage, kidney damage, an increased risk of Alzheimer's, and foot infections that can require amputation [source: Mayo Clinic].
Even our mental health can be affected by a poor diet high in refined sugars, processed meats and high-fat dairy desserts. Researchers have found a strong connection between a junk food diet and higher rates of depression [source: Zeratsky]. High fat and sugar levels are known to increase inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain – which can disrupt the brain's chemical signaling [source: BBC News].
And what about junk food addiction? A growing body of research shows that obese adults and children exhibit classic signs of addiction − out-of-control binge eating, increased tolerance and withdrawal symptoms − that are usually associated with alcohol and drugs [source: Gray].
The U.S. federal government has tried to enact tougher regulation of junk food, particularly its marketing and availability to children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now requires restaurant chains and movie theaters to post calorie counts directly on their menus, and sugary soft drinks have been removed from most school vending machines [source: Tavernise and Strom].
Still, fast-food chains continue to spend billions of dollars marketing their high-calorie, low-nutrition foods to even the youngest children. In 2012, McDonald's alone spent 2.7 times as much money on advertising as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water and milk producers combined [source: UCONN Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity].
Marketing geniuses in the food industry now package high-calorie, low-nutrition snacks as "organic," "gluten-free" and "whole grain" to jam our junk food radar. Always read the nutrition label!
Taxing Junk Food
One proposal to help finance health reform would tax fast food, salty snacks, and/or sugary drinks like soda. While critics see government meddling in citizens’ private lives, supporters of a “junk food” tax say such a levy could help finance expanded insurance coverage as well as lower health care costs by inducing people to switch to healthier diets. Taxpayers pay much of the expense of obesity-related disease through Medicare and Medicaid.
Would a junk food tax really reduce obesity? Economic theory says that by raising the relative price of unhealthy foods that contribute to obesity, the tax would motivate people to spend more of their income on foods that are healthy. As consumers abandon costlier junk foods, obesity rates would fall, and so would health care costs. At least that’s the theory.
In practice, a lot would depend on how the tax is designed. For example, a tax on chips could result in people choosing to buy more cookies for their afternoon snack. Similarly, a tax on soda might lead people to drink more beer. For a tax to be effective at reducing obesity, consumers must not respond by switching to other unhealthy foods not covered by the tax.
Lisa M. Powell and Frank J. Chaloupka recently combed the literature to find out what we know about how junk food taxes affect obesity. Their answer: not much. Most studies have concluded that changes in the price of unhealthy foods have relatively small effects on obesity rates, although one found that residents of states that repealed junk food taxes were more likely to experience subsequent obesity gains. Powell and Chaloupka concluded that it would probably require a “nontrivial” change in prices to significantly affect obesity rates. In other words, it would take a heavy tax to keep the weight off.
Like other sin taxes, a tax on junk foods would be regressive. That is, it would disproportionately affect low-income families who consume a greater share of those goods. However, this story may not be so clear-cut. Several studies have found that low-income households are especially sensitive to changes in the price of unhealthy foods, suggesting they will avoid much of the tax (and the financial hit) by reducing junk food purchases.
Moreover, low-income communities are among the most affected by obesity-related diseases such as Type II diabetes and heart disease. If a junk food tax helped change that pattern while also providing revenue to improve access to health insurance, its net effect could be extremely progressive (Len Burman has made a similar point in the context of a VAT).
A final stumbling block lies in defining junk food. Are high-calorie sports drinks junk foods or useful exercise aids? What makes a sugary drink healthy enough to avoid the tax? Do O.J. and apple juice make the cut? The
has spent years trying to define a potato chip (the issue is still not fully resolved). Wherever policymakers draw the line, food manufacturers will try to make their product appear to be on the right side of it. Thus a junk food tax might precipitate more changes to how foods are packaged and sold than to what people actually eat.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
'Fat Tax' to Lower Obesity
Taxing unhealthy eatables could cut obesity, prevent heart problems, says study.
Can Junk Food Tax Reduce Obesity?
May 16, 2012 -- Calories, number of hours spent exercising, number of pounds to lose, those who are overweight now have a new number to worry about: a "fat" tax.
Adding a high tax on unhealthy food and drinks may help slow the rising rates of obesity, according to a new study published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal. Previous studies suggest that the sharp tax increase on cigarettes in 2009 has contributed to the dramatic decrease in the number of smokers in the U.S. And it's hoped a "fat" tax would work the same way.
A tax of at least 20 percent placed on sugar-sweetened drinks could drop obesity rates by 3.5 percent and prevent 2,700 heart-related deaths each year, according to the study.
Nearly 34 percent of Americans are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The growing obesity rate has led to high cholesterol, and an increase in chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer. The goal of the tax is to curb sales of unhealthy food and decrease overconsumption, which may help to prevent disease.
The study also called for subsidizing the cost of healthy foods and vegetables to make them more affordable to greater numbers of people.
A growing number of European countries, including Denmark and France, have already imposed a tax on unhealthy food and drinks.
But not all foods that are high in fat are considered unhealthy, which may challenge the notion of imposing a blanket tax, some food policy experts said. It's important to first distinguish what food and drink should be labeled "unhealthy" before imposing a tax, they said.
"Some high fat food like nuts are related to reduced weight gain," said Dr. Walt Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard University's School of Public Health.
Salmon and avocados, also high in unsaturated so-called good fat, are also considered healthy foods. Unsaturated fat eaten in moderation can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.
"A focus on sugar and refined starch is better, but as a first step I favor a focus just on sugar-sweetened beverages as the evidence is strongest for this," said Willett.
One out of five children drink three or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day, accounting for an extra meal, according to the HBO documentary series, "Weight of the Nation," which is airing this week.
Dr. Jana Klauer, a New York private practice nutrition physician, likened soda to a "gateway drug" to obesity.
"Sugary soda is nothing more than liquid calories which stimulate appetite," said Klauer.
Unhealthy foods and drinks are only a small contributor to many factors that lead to obesity, according to Martin Binks, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health.
"Taxation may shift food choices away from those foods, but it provides no guarantee that the consumer will not simply shift to other unhealthy options and or continue to consume unhealthy quantities of all foods while also getting inadequate physical activity," said Binks.
Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine agreed that food is not the only culprit for obesity. Instead, the focus should lie on restoring physical activity programs and offering incentives and tax breaks for those who implement healthy behaviors – what he called, "actions that reward good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior.
"To solve the obesity crisis, people don't need more legislation, they need more motivation," he said.
Only steep taxes added to a large amount of unhealthy food and beverages will keep consumers from switching to other unhealthy foods, according to Oliver Mytton, academic clinical fellow at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study.
"Singling out one set of products in such an overly simplistic manner only undermines efforts to combat this complex issue," the American Beverage Association said in a written statement, citing a study review by researchers at George Mason University that only showed a slight decrease in body mass index when a 20 percent tax was imposed on sugar beverages.
According to the study, some food industry groups say higher taxes could damage the industry and lead to job losses.
But some experts say that cost to jobs is not as risky as the economic cost if Americans remain obese. Obesity costs American businesses $70 billion in lost productivity, another statistic presented in the HBO documentary series.
"The cost in tax payer dollars is enormous," said Klauer. "A soda tax could be used to offset the medical costs."
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Should We Tax Junk Foods To Curb Obesity?
Taxing junk food manufacturers could indirectly promote healthier food choices, a new study suggests . [+] (Credit: Shutterstock).
A new study out today proposes a strategy for fighting obesity that may seem unrealistic in the current era of business-friendly government policies: a national excise tax on junk food manufacturers. But it’s not such a crazy idea, say researchers from New York University and Tufts University. In fact, a handful of other countries have tried it, and early evidence suggests it does have a positive impact on public health.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is a review of every scientific paper published on U.S. and international food taxes through May of last year. After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that an excise tax on junk food manufacturers would be legally viable and relatively easy to administer.
And even though such a tax wouldn’t hit consumers directly, as a sales tax would, it could have an indirect effect on eating choices—and by extension, obesity—says lead author Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU’s College of Global Public Health. “The reason to use excise taxes is the expectation that [manufacturers] will pass on the increased costs by raising prices,” Pomeranz says. “Consumers end up either avoiding the product or replacing it with something different. Or the manufacturers have the option to reformulate and come up with products that will not be taxed.”
While there is widespread disagreement about what the role of government should be in the fight against widening waistlines, virtually everyone agrees obesity is a serious problem. More than one out of every three adults are obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. About one in six people under the age of 19 have obesity. Being overweight or obese raises the risk of several disorders, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and joint disease.
Local governments have tried a variety of strategies in recent years to curb rising rates of obesity. Berkeley, CA, imposes taxes on soda distributors, for example. Similar laws were passed in 2016 in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, CA, as well as in Boulder, CO.
Whether or not those taxes will actually make a dent in obesity is a matter of fierce debate, however. A study out of Cornell University in 2016 found that prices on sugary drinks in Berkeley didn’t increase as much as expected after that city’s tax went into effect, and many stores in the city didn’t pass along the cost of the taxes to consumers. That raised questions about whether local taxes will make any difference at all in the fight against obesity.
Pomeranz and her co-authors believe a national excise tax would be more effective, partly because it might incentivize food manufacturers to change the ingredients in their products. They suggest that for the purposes of such a tax, junk food should be defined according to a combination of product category (such as candy, salty snacks and so forth) and nutrients (namely sugar). Such a tax would be even better if it were graduated, they say, meaning it would go up as the nutritional value of the food goes down.
One country that has already seen a positive impact on public health from a junk food excise tax is Hungary. Manufacturers of junk foods in that country pay a “value added tax” of 27% on top of the 25% tax that’s imposed on most foods. Hungary’s law levies the junk food tax based largely on sugar and salt content.
Four years after Hungary’s tax was introduced, more than 59% of consumers had lowered their consumption of the offending junk food products, according to a study conducted by the country’s National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition and the World Health Organization (WHO). Overweight or obese adults were twice as likely to change their eating habits than were people of normal weight, the researchers found. When consumers were polled, they reported that they were opting for less expensive products—but that the taxes also made them more mindful of the health risks of junk food.
“Hungary has been touted by the World Health Organization as one of the most effective taxes they’ve seen because it has reduced consumption of [junk food] products,” Pomeranz says. “The educational component also reduced consumption. It wasn’t just about the price increase.”
Implementing a national tax on junk food in the U.S. wouldn’t be all that difficult, the NYU and Tufts researchers argue. There is already a model in place: an excise tax on alcohol manufacturers that’s based largely on ingredient levels. For wine, the tax increases according to the amount of alcohol in the drink.
Pomeranz is well aware that the idea of taxing junk food probably won’t gain much traction now, especially considering that President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress just passed a major tax cut for businesses. Still, she hopes the research will spark ideas for new ways to tackle the obesity problem in the future.
“Politics shifts all the time. The hope is that at some point a more public-health-friendly administration will come in and continue to support evidence-based policies,” Pomeranz says. “As public health advocates and researchers, we believe the fight must continue.”