Junk Food Day

Let’s Tax Junk Food All Across America

Call it “a modest proposal” if you like. But the authors probably don’t intend this to be satire. Writing in the American Journal of Public Health, Jennifer Pomeranz and colleagues tell us that we can tax junk food all across America anytime we want to.

They offer a wry conclusion. “Political feasibility in the current political climate is uncertain and seems unlikely.” But, they add hopefully, “political considerations can evolve quickly.” Uh huh.

Defining Junk Food

Pomeranz et al conclude that defining junk food is totally doable. We could define product categories that are junky – chips, for example. Or we could base it on both product categories and nutrient profiles. The tax would be against manufacturers. Point of sale would be harder.

In doing her analysis, she focused on legal feasibility. Scientific validity came up only briefly. Interestingly, this analysis did not discuss much of the scientific concerns about an effective definition for junk food.

However, Gregorio Milani and colleagues discussed this very issue last year in the the International Journal of Obesity. They concluded that:

Each food can be just a player in the field of unhealthy nutrition. No single category of food can be identified as the main guilty factor. Consequently, in addressing obesity and obesity-related diseases, we think that the term “junk food” is likely to be pointless, and should be replaced by the concept of “junk dietary pattern,” to be considered along with individual genetics and lifestyle.

Having an Impact

The other problem with this modest proposal is impact. Certainly if we tax all the foods that people tend to consume in excess, we might have an impact. That is, if we tax them enough to create a real economic burden.

Making highly palatable food harder to buy might have unintended consequences. First, it would put a disproportionate burden on people with less money. We see that already in Philadelphia. People with a taste for soda are paying an unpopular tax. People with more expensive tastes – say for a sugary latte at Starbucks – are not. Second, food producers may find ways to produce highly palatable foods that avoid the tax.

And then there’s the response that people have when the foods they want become scarce. Desire for those scarce foods goes up. People get angry. After years of deprivation, obesity risks rise. Needless to say, the politics don’t work out too well.

So the reasons that a junk food tax might be unpopular go deeper than typical fights about taxes. If you try to tax food that people are consuming with a passion, they will object.

Indeed, this is a modest proposal that’s about as helpful as the one that Jonathan Swift published in 1729.

Click here for the Pomeranz paper and here for the Milani paper. You can read more on this here in Vox.

Junk Food Day, illustration © little birth / flickr

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January 19, 2018

One Response to “Let’s Tax Junk Food All Across America”

  1. January 19, 2018 at 10:33 am, David Brown said:

    “The supreme end of education is expert discernment of all things- the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.”
    Samuel Johnson http://izquotes.com/quote/329601

    In my experience, once people understand what counterfeit food does to them, they choose mostly real food. Unfortunately, the U.S. Government has not been helpful in terms of educating the public. The anti-saturated fat campaign, for example, has forced the food manufacturing industry to formulate their products such that they contain extremely high levels of polyunsaturated oils. Likewise, restaurant food, confectionery, and baked goods have become overly rich in omega-6 linoleic acid. Now, some experts want to tax the foods that have been made unhealthy because of wrong-headed government policy? I fail to see the wisdom in that.

    Fortunately, there’s growing realization that saturated fats are not a health hazard. Consider, for example, the tremendous growth in sales of Jackson’s Honest chips made with coconut oil. Here’s a bit of the story behind the success of Jackson’s Honest.

    “We weren’t looking for a cure to our son’s undiagnosed disease – we were simply trying to make his quality of life much better and address what we thought was the biggest problem: inflammation. And we were able to do so by changing his diet. In fact, food was the only thing that was ever able to intermediate his disease process: good fats, grass-fed meats, fresh and fermented vegetables.

    We soon realized that almost everything we had believed about fats was quite wrong. We realized that traditional, healthy fats that had been consumed for centuries (like cod liver oil, tallow, lard, coconut oil, and unpasteurized butter from grass-fed cows) were a source of essential nutrition. And that man-made vegetable oils are the product of an industrial manufacturing process that was invented 100 years ago were a source of real nutritional aggravation.

    As we embraced this healthy fat diet over the last decade, we came to more saturated fat in more of our meals. And as our family grew to four children, we started experimenting with making everything they ate ‘fat friendly’. Perhaps, inevitably, we experimented with frying our own potato chips in coconut oil.” https://jacksonshonest.com/pages/history

    It would seem that the political forces that prevent the government from correcting its dietary advice also promote confusion as to what constitutes a healthy diet. As University of Missouri nutrition researcher Elizabeth Parks observed, “To fix the guidelines, officials should appoint experts with a balance of opinions, especially on key contentious topics such as saturated fats and salt. They should also recognize that different people may need different diets. Science doesn’t support a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. Perhaps the government shouldn’t promote one either.” http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article195147979.html

    Ultimately, choosing which expert to follow is problematic. A safer approach is to acquire knowledge, develop discernment, and exercise wisdom.