A Tax on Junk Food? NO

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This article appeared in the May 1, 2005 New York Daily News, paired with an opposing argument from Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz is now intensifying his ongoing campaign to fight obesity in the state by taxing "junk food," purportedly to generate funding for obesity education programs. His targets are foods high in fat and sugar--specifically cookies, candy bars, soft drinks, fast foods and potato chips. This year his bill dubbed "the couch potato tax" picked up the support of the powerful New York State health workers union, thus confirming the wisdom of H.L. Mencken, who noted, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."

Will we soon be paying more for Oreos and Big Macs? Not if science and common sense prevail.

First, obesity is not caused by any specific foods. Excess pounds result from too many calories taken in from any source of food or drink--and too few burned through exercise. It does not matter much if your calories come from butter, beef, bananas, bon bons, beets, barley or bourbon. Too many without sufficient physical activity will make you fat.

Second, the definition of "junk food" is ambiguous. Does the good assemblyman want to tax all foods that are high in sugar--including orange, apple and other juices? Would he tax all foods high in fat--like avocados, for example? Will he tax French fried potatoes but not baked potatoes with a few dollops of butter? Perhaps he and his supporters really want to tax all foods. An April 3 New York Times editorial endorsing the Ortiz legislation proclaimed, "anyone who buys Camembert can afford an extra nickel for a childhood obesity program."

Third, this proposed tax--just like the ones slapped on cigarettes--will inevitably be hijacked for other programs, becoming just another source of revenue to fatten the state budget.

We need science-based solutions to the public health crisis of obesity--like eating less and exercising more--not weighty political rhetoric.