Fat Tax? Fat Chance

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For the last couple years, Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Kelly Brownell, Yale psychology professor, have been promoting the idea of a "Twinkie tax." According to their reasoning, a small tax on so-called "junk foods" soft drinks and snack foods could be used to fund nutrition and exercise education programs to fight the national obesity epidemic. Their ideas were published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2000 (vol. 90, pg. 854).

While the idea might be appealing to some, it's not a particularly realistic option for a couple of reasons. For one, as these gentlemen noted in their article, of the nineteen states or municipalities that taxed soft drinks and snack foods, none had earmarked those funds for any purpose related to nutrition education. Indeed, fourteen used the money for "General Funds," and other uses included highway litter control, violence prevention, drug enforcement, and in one case, support of medical, dental, and nursing schools.

It seems rather unlikely that in these times of deficit growth, local or state legislators are likely to restrict their use of tax funds to nutrition purposes. If you doubt this, just look at what has happened with the funds states obtained from the Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry. Well over 90% of that money is used for purposes other than tobacco use prevention or smoking cessation programs. What would keep "Twinkie tax" funds from being hijacked in a similar manner?

Further, while the ostensible aim of such a tax is to apply it to foods deemed nutritionally lacking, the authors of the proposed tax also mention possibly taxing "fats and oils" thus morphing the "Twinkie tax" into a fat tax. Here things get more complicated scientifically: While no one would consider a soft drink essential for life, some fats really are. So would we tax lard and canola oil in the same way, for example, even though the latter contains a higher proportion of monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, both thought to be more healthful forms of fat? Would it make more sense to tax such ingredients according to their planned use? Perhaps we could make consumers sign a form pledging to use their vegetable oils only for salad dressing and not for frying homemade doughnuts.

It is true that obesity rates in the U.S. have been rising dramatically in the last couple of decades, and this is certainly a matter of public health concern. The sheer abundance of all sorts of foods in American groceries and other food outlets means that consumers must be knowledgeable in order to make wise choices. But slightly increasing the price of certain categories of foods will not necessarily make consumers any wiser, nor will it necessarily make more information available to them.


May 13, 2002

Since Brownell and Jacobson's main proposal was to tax soft drinks and other junk food, your heading "fat tax" is not entirely appropriate, although it undoubtedly attracts more attention.

If states are not using the proceeds of this tax for nutrition education, surely it would be more useful to lobby for them to do so than to attack the idea of the tax.

Professor Simon Chapman from Sydney University has shown that increasing the price of cigarettes reduces consumption, especially among children. It seems reasonable to assume the same thing might happen with soft drinks and snack foods, although the size of the increase would need some study.

The fact that companies involved in selling junk foods oppose any such tax makes me think it might just work!

Dr. Rosemary Stanton, Ph.D.

May 13, 2002

Kava replies:

Dr. Stanton,

Thanks for your response. A couple of points of clarification are in order, I think. First, the article cited, while it begins by discussing a tax on "junk foods," does get around to perhaps extending the tax to foods high in fat; thus the title of the piece. Second, both Brownell and Jacobson have made the point that they are not proposing a tax that would be large enough to decrease consumption; the ostensible reason for the tax was to be purely as a fund-raiser. As far as lobbying legislatures goes, we could do that already to see if such an approach would be feasible.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D.
Director of Nutrition, ACSH