Federal 'Junk Food' Tax is Feasible, Not Probable

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It would be feasible from both legal and administrative perspectives to impose federal taxes on so-called "junk foods," says a new study. Junk food taxes have been urged for years by various authorities, the ostensible reason being that they would make these foods more expensive and thus decrease their popularity — supposedly a means of fighting the obesity epidemic. And some cities, e.g. Boston and Philadelphia, have imposed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) as a first step.

However, Jennifer L. Pomeranz, J.D., M.P.H from New York University and colleagues write in the American Journal of Public Health that such local taxes won't have the broad impact that a federal tax would have, and thus they investigated how a federal tax might best be designed by examining the scientific and legal literature.

They performed reviews of the scientific literature, U.S. food tax laws, and federal taxing mechanisms; these included articles that demonstrated how food products could be identified to allow allocation of a "junk food" status — for example basing the level of taxation on the levels of sugar or salt, or on food categories. The evidence they found supported

 ...a definition of the taxed products through (1) product- specific categories or (2) a combination of product-specific categories and multiple or individual nutrients.  

The authors suggested the appropriate type of tax would be a federal excise tax on the manufacturers of such foods, much as is done with the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, rather than a sales tax that consumers would pay at the point of purchase (of course the increased prices would be passed along to consumers). 

While their approach is informative and innovative, their conclusion about the public health implication of such a tax is one we have seen before:

 Junk food taxes have the potential to substantially reduce the disease burden that results from unhealthy food and beverage consumption in the United States. 

Unfortunately, this remains to be proven. Although some have pointed to the reduction in cigarette smoking and attributed it to increased taxes as well as public education efforts, food choices and consumption are really different issues than smoking. No matter how fat or thin a person is, he or she must eat, and even if "junk food" is never consumed, that doesn't mean a healthy diet is chosen. So making such foods more expensive is far from ensuring a reduction in obesity. Even without such taxes, to make a dent in the obesity epidemic more effective education will be necessary.

Further, as the authors acknowledge, 

Political feasibility in the current political climate is uncertain and seems unlikely. 

This could change, of course, but at present passage of a federal excise tax on "junk foods" is highly unlikely.