Would You Pay Taxes on Your Burger to Prevent Obesity in Others?

Photo: FrenchSelfCatering.com

Would you pay a junk food tax? Obesity has been a major concern in the United States for many decades. Report after report show that obesity rates continue to rise, while subsequent health problems mount. Various countries facing similar obesity issues have taken steps to resolve the issue by placing a tax on unhealthy foods that contribute to weight gain, and the U.S. may be the next country to implement a so-called fat tax.

Junk Food and Obesity an Ongoing Problem

Food is one of America’s guiltiest pleasures. Whether it’s double cheeseburgers at fast food chains or eating juicy steaks at our favorite restaurants, we as a country take in plenty of fatty food that adds unneeded pounds to our frames.

Unfortunately, experts say it’s the intake of foods that we don’t need — junk food — that contributes generously to higher rates of obesity.

Obesity is defined as the abnormal accumulation of body fat that averages 20 percent more than an individual’s ideal body weight. While all people come in different shapes and sizes that are medically acceptable, being obese is considered a major health problem across the board.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2012 a whopping 149.3 million Americans age 20 or older fall into this category. With this unhealthy weight comes the risk of a number of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.

Because many believe that junk food and obesity go hand-in-hand, and junk food is readily available and often times less expensive than fruits and vegetables, how can the United States slow the rate of obesity?

Countries Implement Fat Tax on Food

A number of options have emerged over the years to encourage people to live healthier lifestyles. For instance, many employers offer workers incentives to improve their health (and lower their health insurance costs) by having them agree to lose weight or undergo regular health screenings.

And the United States government maintains HealthyPeople.gov, a site that promotes Healthy People 2010, a science-based objective for improving the health of all Americans by promoting improved eating habits and physical activity.

But as many countries have found, being aware of better habits and actually putting them into practice are two different things, which is why some have taken matters into their own hands by implementing a fat tax.

In France, consumers are taxed for purchasing sweetened drinks, as are people in some other European countries. In Hungary, a junk food tax is levied on a broad range of items that include foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

In 2011, Denmark imposed its own so-called fat tax by charging rates that correspond with the percentage of fat in a product — $3 for every 2.2 pounds of saturated fat. Under this tax, a burger is charged an average of $0.15 more while a small package of butter might cost $0.40 more.

After the tax was implemented, health minister Jakob Axel Nielsen explained that adding the tax would be a great way to reduce fats that can cause cardiovascular disease and cancer. “Higher fees on sugar, fat and tobacco is an important step on the way toward a higher average life expectancy in Denmark.”

Oliver Mytton, of the British Heart Foundation’s Health Promotion Research Group, along with colleagues of the University of Oxford, conducted a review of about 30 international studies that examine the effects food taxes have on public health.

One study found that a 35-percent tax on sugar-sweetened drinks ($0.45 per drink) led to a 26-percent decline in sales.

Though, they concluded, while analyzing the effects of taxes on drinks is less complex than food, the researchers agreed that implementing a fat tax in the U.S. could have a positive effect on healthy living.

Is a Fat Tax in America Possible?

There is currently no county in more need of help with obesity than the United States. According to 2012 statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. has the highest obesity rate in the world with 33.8 percent of the population falling into this category.

A part of the Healthy People 2010 agenda was to improve the obesity rates in the nation, state by state. As of 2010, however, no state has met the nation’s goal to lower obesity prevalence to 15 percent. In fact, the number of states with an obesity prevalence of 30 percent or more has actually increased to 12 states from zero states in the year 2000.

Since the fat tax has found success in other parts of the world, some argue it might be successful in reducing obesity rates in the U.S.

In Mytton’s analysis, he concluded that a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks in the U.S. would reduce obesity levels by 3.5 percent among adults. But will a fat tax in America work?

While implementing this type of tax seems like a no-brainer, experience shows that there are both fat tax pros and cons that make the decision a challenging one.

California, Maine and Maryland have already experimented with hefty fat tax legislation, but ultimately, all levies were repealed due to problems that arose, partially because the collected taxes were not to be used for obesity-prevention programs or healthy food subsidies.

Also, there were concerns that this type of tax would punish poorer people who must spend much of their limited income on food.

A few states have, however, found success with junk food taxes on soft drinks. Since 1994, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington have all implemented small levies on sugary beverages sold within their borders, which leads some to believe that a tax on other types of foods could be successful.

In fact, various studies have shown a reasonable amount of consumer support for a junk food tax, especially with the possibility of receiving subsidies to help purchase healthier food.

But with no strong push for junk food tax legislation and, as Mytton noted, food industry accusations that the taxes are ineffective, unfair and possibly detrimental in terms of industry job losses, it’s probable that this type of tax won’t be strongly considered anytime in the near future.