Should There Be a "Fat Tax" on Junk Food?

By Paul Michael on 15 October 2009 (Updated 22 February 2010) 123 comments

Yes.

Well, that's just my humble opinion, but I really don't see why this has so many people throwing their arms up in the air with shock. We tax liquor and cigarettes, neither of which are essentials in life. Why not tax something that is bad for our health, preventing more people from buying it and generating much-needed cash in the process?

Taxes on beer, spirits and cigarettes vary from state to state (there's a detailed list here) but one thing's for sure...when you grab a shot of your favorite tipple, you're giving money to Uncle Sam. Like most things in life, liquor should be taken in moderation. It's a treat. And as such, we can stomach a little extra money being handed over for our shot of bourbon or pint of ale. (Cigarettes, well, they're a whole different animal and if it weren't for the enormous amount of money they generate they would have been banned years ago. Such is the power of the mighty dollar.)

Similarly, fast food is (or should be) a rare treat, too. Probably more rare than a glass of wine or cold bottle of Bud. If you recall Super Size Me, nutritionists interviewed by Morgan Spurlock said you should only eat junk food once a month, if at all. That doesn't stop most Americans gorging on fast food like rats in a New York dumpster.

Just look at a few statistics. In the U.S., 64.5 percent of adults are overweight and 30.5 percent are obese.

Over half of the population eats fast food once a week with 20 percent eating fast food at least every other day. And high frequency users are more likely to increase fast food consumption because of economic pressure and are attracted to "value" dining options. (See these and more distasteful facts here).

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It's right there in black and white. The "value" menus are making junk food way too attractive of an option. But what if, as of 2010, every Big Mac, Whopper and "Triple-Bacon Heart Attack Burger" sold in the USA had a $2 fat tax? The money generated would be enormous. We're talking billions and billions of dollars. Even with the decreased consumption due to increased cost, most people would still choose to eat junk food. Maybe not as much, but there are times when the smell of grilled cheese and ground chuck are just irresistible. Now put that fat tax on other junk foods and see the money pile up even more quickly.

People will always want that forbidden treat, and they'll happily pay for it. I don't see anyone complaining about the high price of Belgian chocolate or hand-made English Toffee. It's not necessary for survival. It only exists to give people pleasure. And as such, like so many other pleasures in life that are bad for us, we're willing to pay more for them. I know I'd fork over $8 for my junk food of choice, a Chipotle burrito. Right now it's less than $6, but what's $2 more for that one pound of delicious spicy goodness (or badness)?

Let the government tax our fatty treats, and let them use that money to pay off some of the debt, or create new jobs, or rebuild the crumbling bridges and infrastructure.

Here's another idea. What if we use the money generated by fast food purchases to subsidize the prices of healthy food, like fruits, vegetables and fresh fish? Right now, fast food is generally cheaper than a healthy meal, and much easier to come by. There are fast food restaurants everywhere, but the healthy, cheap and easily accessible options are much more scarce. By channeling the money from junk food to good food, we are not preventing anyone from eating a burger...we're just making it way more easy to buy a similarly-priced healthy alternative.

I say the time is right for a fat tax. I know many of you will disagree with me, and that's just one more thing that makes this country great. We can eat our fatty junk foods, we can slurp our sugary sodas, and we can have a good old debate about it all. Now, what's for dessert?

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Guest's picture
Guest

When you have a hammer (in this case, artificial economic incentives via tax legislation), everything is a nail. And the world of economics is one of unintended consequences. Sure, a tax on junk food might give me that extra little push to reach for an apple instead of a chocolate bar once in awhile, but I suspect that demand for junk food is relatively inelastic to price, especially among the high-risk groups that are already hooked on fast food. Instead of helping people eat better, your tax might just make people eat more to feel better about their sudden decrease in purchasing power, drive up inflation, or what have you.

Here's a thought: instead of trying to internalize every factor of life with economic incentives like fat taxes, why don't you try to broaden your arsenal of incentives, try a little consumer education, a little encouragement, and stop being so possessed by the almighty dollar.

Guest's picture
Travis

While I don't agree with the government "being in everyone's business," why NOT have a fat tax? Half of the reason health care is so expensive is because of these obese people all around us! It's only fair they SHOULD be paying of their care, because I sure as hell don't like doing it.

Guest's picture
Guest

hey travis, your arugment sucks

Guest's picture
Rob Atkinson

I would not be against a junk food tax if it went towards the proper purposes, which does not automatically mean being applied towards the usual recipents of "schools, bridges, and all that good stuff." Next year the Ontario government will be increasing the tax on ice time paid by minor hockey organizations which will furthur push the cost of amateur sports out of the reach of many families. Why is it that if I take a class in cake decorating at a college or university it is tax deductable because it is "eduactional" while if I join a marathon training group at the Running Room it is still fully taxed? People forget that the other side of the equation is to become physically active while still eating well. Maybe if the "junk food tax" helped people become physically active rather than just eliminating junk food I would be for it.
For full disclosure I have two children in rep. hockey which is costing me almost $6000 per year but I'm hoping that they will discover a lifelong love of excercise. I myself have also run 10 marathons over the past 5 years and enjoy Taco Bell and a bottle of Coke on occasion.

Guest's picture
Robert Michaels

Let's please be honest: Most people eat fast food because it tastes good and is convenient.

It's NOT cheaper than buying food at a grocery store and making several small meals for yourself a day. If, for example, you were trying to save money you would not eat two meals a day at a fast food restaurant. You would spend $15 no problem. Let's be serious. Any combo meal is $7 for sure. Plus tax.

On the other hand I will take you to any grocery store and purchase a small bag of oatmeal, a dozen eggs, a dozen apples, a small bag of carrots, four cans of tuna and a loaf of 12-grain bread for $20. I buy that EXACT combo at least once a week at various grocery stores and it never costs more than $20. Double that and for $40 a week you can have several relatively healthy meals that will fill you up and provide you with a much healthier mix of protein, carbs and fat than fast food. There's no way you're getting by on $40 a week eating fast food, I don't care what you say. Check your bank account statements. Start being realistic and taking responsibility for yourselves.

So why don't people do this? Simple. It's not very tasty and it's not very convenient. So many people - such is our nature! - make excuses like "It's too expensive to eat well" and "I literally don't have time to eat well." Right. It's a choice and people are just generally LAZY and UNMOTIVATED and EXCUSE-DRIVEN...simple as that. I know because I was like that, too, for many years. But THAT'S why so many people are fat. THAT'S why fad diets and pills and quack "doctors" and useless gadgets (you actually think you can lose weight by sitting in a vibrating chair for 11 minutes a day!?) are so popular.

Will a tax help? I have no idea. But I do know that what people need in their lives are incentives. See a relative die of a heart attack, or a mother suffer from lung cancer for four years, or a child become so obese he/she can't participate in gym at school. I'd urge anyone reading this to be proactive and stop making excuses. Buck up, spend the $50 a month on a gym (the money you save from not eating out will more than cover it, trust me!), talk to the resident nuritionist, make a budget and a meal plan, and STICK WITH IT. Give it a year. You'll see the results and then you can help others.

Guest's picture
Colin M

I 100% agree, this is a fantastic idea.

Guest's picture
Guest

We're all getting fatter, and it ain't because we're eating healthier. What do you anti-fat-tax folks think we ought to do about it? Or perhaps, getting fatter is a good thing?

Guest's picture
Deborah

As I've stated above, I think that the government needs to stay the heck out of our private choices.

Some of you are so ignorant as to say "people choose to be fat". Seriously? My best friend throughout high school was fat, her mom was fat, and her grandmother was fat. They did not eat hardly any junk food. I spent most of my time there and ate there because I was too poor to buy my own food, so I certainly knew their diet. It must have been, oh I don't know...a genetic condition?

Aside from that, who determines what is "good" or "bad"? EVERYTHING in MODERATION is the only way to live a healthy life. This means drinking in moderation and also eating junk food in moderation.

From the standpoint of a freelancer who lives in a city with one of the worst transit systems in the country, no car, and hardly any money I can honestly say that I am struggling ENOUGH without the stupid government coming in and holding their hand out for my money some more. I already give 30% of my income to them, what more do they want?!

We are already overtaxed, overworked, and stressed. We don't need this tax any more than we needed the cost of vehicle registration to reach $400 in my state or the $4 a gallon gas last year or the 30% increase on our already high electric bills come January or any of the other stupid choices that people in authority have been making.

Their job is supposed to be to protect us, not harm us! Things are expensive enough, I'm already bleeding dry. I don't need to be handing the government any more of my money. They CERTAINLY don't need it. Whoever thinks that they need money is an imbecile.

We are the ones who need money. And privacy. No more big brother. No more silly taxes. No more government stepping over the line. If they want to give me health care, then fine. If they want to start putting more effort into helping the poor, then fine. Make more silly taxes and make the economy worse? No thanks, Uncle Sam. I think I'll pass.

Guest's picture
Kevin

Thanks to people who think like you, we have far too many laws, regulations, and taxes. For far too long we've used democracy to take people's money and strip away their individual rights. This ain't freedom, folks.

Guest's picture
Taxed Enough

If you haven't realized it, your sodas and burgers are already taxed. Stay out of my kitchen government.

Guest's picture
Guest

We rely on a national defense system, social security, medicare, FDA, and many other federal government services for so much, yet we have so many people who argue that "big government" will take away our choices and freedoms, when in fact so many aspects of our day to day lives are owed to the same. We have freedoms BECAUSE we have a national defense system, you think Rhode Island could protect itself if neighboring states or England wanted it to take over? Senior citizens who aren't working can get medication and housing for less because of GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES. Don't all these "horrible taxes" go to pay for these government programs we so easily take for granted? What happened to caring for our neighbors, and taking care of our country? Wake up people, we won't be the greatest and most powerful country in the world if our children remain obese and are dying in their 20's of heart attacks. This isn't just about fat people, you don't have to be fat to be a diabetic or have a heart attack,its about the health of future generations, its a crisis that has to be dealt with. The revenue should go to subsidizing healthier foods and educating those who don't know the difference.

To the poster complaining about $4 gas - blame the greedy oil execs not the govt. as we get charged at the pump waaaaaay before that $100 barrel of oil ever gets processed into gas for our vehicles. That's right, blame the capitalist who takes advantage of the American Dream and sticks it to whoever they can. The "stupid government" as you put it the REASON you can choose get up and go to work in your city without fear of being kidnapped and beheaded or stoned to death for being a woman with a job, and if you are taxed at 30% you must make more than 75K annually so learn to manage your money better!!

Guest's picture
Glenda

If anyone thinks that government will use the tax to ACTUALLY deflect the health costs--well--we haven't leaned much. Educate. Educate. Educate.

If cost is the main driving force, why are people not in an uproar about the TRUE costs of alcohol? Visit a local jail. You will find 70% of inmates--yup--alcohol is behind it. It's a cost to taxpayers not only in health care, but law enforcement, courts, the judicial system and treatment centers. This cost is staggering. It dwarfs the costs of diabetes. It just is confusing because it comes into so many different government agencies.

Be aware -- these pre-paid taxes costs jobs. I am a grocer. This is dead capital to us. It is money we pre-pay the wholesalers. It never turns a profit and it never is recovered. It is a dead expense--constant. It also has a direct effect on inventories. All our inventories are down--because of the economy and because so much is tied up in pre-paids.

Our SCHIP tax--when enforced into law--I laid off 4 people. And, I am a very small grocer. Just like you--my capital has a limit. I cannot spend one dollar twice. If gov't takes it first, the private sector doesn't get it. This goes for grocers and restaurants, as well. Watch what you wish for. It may cost a family member a job.

Guest's picture
Miss Rubicund

Oh please, some of the earlier comments have annoyed me. What's considered junk food, or how can it be judged that something like cigarettes or fast food is bad for you? If you smoke or eat the fast food regularly and your health starts to suck, that's your hint, it's not doing you good. Taxing would generate much needed money and deter people from using what's bad for them. If the government was pulling this out of their rears I wouldn't be for it, but there's PLENTY to support that fast food is bad for you.

Also, the government is here to help keep people in line. Anarchy doesn't work, people being free is fine. But sometimes people really DON'T make the best decisions, whether they're in the whole government box or not. People say, hey, it's the person's loss. Let them make that decision without piling on more consequences. Well, it hurts the whole community, and country, when it's on such a wide scale as this.

Also, why on Earth should we cut ANYTHING to make corn syrup and other such things more cheap? Watch Food Inc, why don't you. That will open your eyes. I'm against making it more cheap for corporations to exploit us all.

Guest's picture
Shad Bolling

You can't simultaneously help people become healthier by taxing unhealthy food AND use those taxes to pay off debt, etc. -- even if both things separately are worthwhile. If you succeed on one side of the equation, the beneficiaries of the other side of the equation suffers. The way to combat unhealthy food choices is through a.) education, b.) removal of subsidies to the unhealthy food producers, and c.) supporting healthy food alternatives (local co-ops, organic growers, etc.)

Legislation that takes the power of choice away from people only makes people more dependent on the legislators to tell them what to do.

Guest's picture
gary

Thew writter is an idiot! I don't want the government telling me what to eat. It is simply another tax and waste idea.

 

The government does not even know what is good or bad. One day milk is bad, then fiber is great, then fiber is just ok, coffee is bad then coffee is good. Common sense should be the rule and the government does not have any.

Guest's picture
Dottie

I realize this post is old but i had to add my two cents.

Liquor and beer are taxed and it does not reduce the consumption, so why on earth would you think a tax on fast food would improve American's health. That's the craziest thing I have heard in a while. It will only give our Government more money to waste however it pleases.

Another thing, you would be relying on the government to determine what is good for you and what is bad.There are plenty of food ingredients that are approved by our government that are little less than toxic chemicals.They just believe that the amount we would on average consume would not lead to health risks. There is plenty of food in the grocery stores from major manufacturers labeled: natural, whole grain, no corn syrup etc. that are still crap and nothing more than a candy bar with a piece of wheat thrown in. I believe the government already has way too much control over what I do and I do not want it involved in what I choose to eat.

I strongly believe an effort to have the PRODUCTION of harmful ingredients stopped would be a much better way to improve our health as a nation.

I really do enjoy reading you blog Phillip, however my opinion is you are way off the mark on this post.

Guest's picture
Guest

"Let the government tax our fatty treats, and let them use that money to pay off some of the debt, or create new jobs, or rebuild the crumbling bridges and infrastructure..."

No offense to the author, but this sounds like something a Liberal highschool student would say.  Call me a pessimist, but the past few administrations don't seem too interested in paying down the national debt anytime soon.

 

Guest's picture
Lenora

Clearly this is a hot topic.
Whole foods are far cheaper than processed foods. Come on !!
If each of us sets a healthy eating example for those around us, eventually it will become the norm. Stop taking doughnuts to work or church and take fresh fruit/vegetable trays instead. Send healthy lunches to school with our kids instead of buying school lunch. Let's take care of each other instead of blaming each other. I believe personal responsibility is the answer.

Guest's picture
Guest

there are a lot of people in this country who can only afford $10 or less to feed a family of four ... the answer is not taxing fast food, it is subsidizing healthy food so that poor/lower middle class families can afford healthier options.

cigarettes, liquor, etc. are not necessities, but food is.

Guest's picture
brittany

i agree if we dont lower the prices of healthy food and put taxes on junk food the population is going to go deeper in to poverty, also by lowering the healthy food there will be less medical issues which will result in less money the Goverment will have to spend on health care

Guest's picture
Brent Keswick

No tax on any food, ever. The high price of your Belgian chocolates isn't tax; it's asked by manufacturer because it's a well-made product. The government has no business cashing in on the food business. Please: what ever happened to people taking responsibility for themselves?

But of course, when you have national health care, that's the issue: somebody has to pay. Nobody's responsible for their own health; now we feel we're all in charge when someone overeats or eats poorly.

What's going to be next? We've always suspected that watching large amounts of TV isn't all that good for you. Why not put meters on peoples' television sets and tax them for the amount of time they spend watching non-educational programming? Lack of exercise is a bad thing, too - so perhaps we should levy a tax against every day someone doesn't get at least 30 minutes of aerobic or weight bearing exercise?

Extreme examples, maybe. But then again, we were laughing at the idea of a "fat tax" ten years ago. This is what happens when government starts to micromanage our lives. We believe we can regulate/tax everything until we finally arrive at utopia. But where has there been an example of a micromanaged economy that ultimately made life better for its citizens? Hmmmmm. Five-year plans, anyone?

Just stay out of peoples' lives. Please.

Guest's picture
brittany

i personally think we should have taxes on the junk food but also lower the prices of healthy food. majority of our popluation is in poverty if we just put taxes on junk food people are going to starve because their not going to be able to afford any of it. if we lower the prices of healthy food people will buy more of that and the obesity rate will go down. also there will be less medical issues which results in less money the goverment will have to spend on health care. if they do end up just putting taxes on the junk food more of the population is going to go deeper and deeper in poverty.

Guest's picture
Guest

i think there should be a tax on fatty foods so that way kids don't become obese