Are Junk Food Taxes Fair?

(x-posted from here)
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As someone who is pretty much in the tank for various forms of health-related government intervention, I’m not terribly bothered by the idea of a tax on soda and other forms of junk food.  Over the long-term, health-care costs will continue to stay relatively high unless there is a significant shift in the American diet away from high-fat, high-carbohydrate and high-sugar “foods” and towards less processed, nutrient-dense foods.  As the commenters at Feministe note however, any such tax on junk foods is likely to fall hardest on poor Americans, whose diet disproportionately consists of cheap nutritionally-deficient, high-calorie foods.  That said, I think this is one of those cases where a regressive tax is perfectly fine provided the revenue is redistributed via progressive policies.  I would be okay with a food tax which disproportionately affected lower income Americans if (and only if) those revenues were then used to subsidize produce for said Americans; it’s easy to imagine a program where taxpayers under a certain income receive a card from the government which provides an immediate thirty percent discount on the price of any produce.  It’s not perfect, but I think it could serve as a pretty good way to incentivize healthier eating.

On the whole though, the best solution would be to radically reorganize federal agricultural subsidies.  Oreos are cheap (and come in so many damn varieties) because the federal government subsidizes corn to an absurd degree.  Better would be to redirect subsidies towards vegetables and healthier forms of produce, while continuing to tax junk food and using the revenues to further subsidize the purchase of said produce for poor and working-class Americans.  Of course, I’m sure I’m missing something here, so I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the whole shabangabang.  Is a junk food tax fair?

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Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer for The Daily Beast, and former fellow at The American Prospect and The Nation Institute. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

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36 comments to Are Junk Food Taxes Fair?

  • Oreos have corn in them? Dammit!

    If nothing else changes in food policy, then a junk food tax would do more harm than good.

    Additionally, I think having access to and money to buy whole, healthy foods is only half the battle. There’s also a matter of having the time and ability to prepare them. Junk food is not just popular because it’s cheap (in the long run, it often isn’t cheaper than healthy food), it’s popular because all you have to do is open a box or a bottle and consume it.

  • Only as long as poor nonwhite people have to pay them!

    Shani, GD, quad, great points all, but I would much prefer an effort to end agricultural subsidies rather than raise taxes that will screw over the poor (and no, we cannot have both, the political will necessary for the former is Obama-esq).

    If a mcnugget has so much corn, though, shouldn’t it be classified as a vegetable?

  • jess

    poor people’s (and i say this as someone who grew up working-poor and is now highly educated but still in a low income bracket) food choices are already so constrained–by what costs less (things made with subsidized corn products), by what is available at the local store (things that are outdated and spoiled and overpriced), by what you’re able to prepare (if you’re living at an extended-stay motel and don’t have a stove/oven, or if you have very limited time to prepare a large meal), by what food stamps will buy….

    the constraints on your money and time are already so stressful, sometimes you just want a fucking soda and hour to yourself to watch tv at the end of the day. and cracking open a coke and watching american idol is hardly limited to the poor, but that’s who will be disproportionately affected by a minor sales tax increase. why should we be policing people’s bodies (via their wallets)? especially poor people, whose bodies are so incredibly policed already? so much that is done in the name of “public health” or “anti-obesity education” and so on is steeped in classist cultural judgments…

    we need the progressive incentives for healthy food WITHOUT the regressive taxes and public health policies that police people’s bodies. don’t price us out of all of our everyday pleasures.

  • Amanda525

    I think adding a tax on unhealthy food is a bad idea. I say this mainly because I don’t like strong government but also because when that happens, we don’t get to the root of the problem.

    I think education is the key. Really, we need a change in our attitude towards junk food. We really should take an interest in our relationship with it instead. The tax would just be a “quick fix” that really won’t fix anything. Those who can afford whatever tax is added will still eat junk food if they so choose.

    I really can’t stand the idea of the government making me pay more because I prefer a soda over orange juice. I don’t want to be forced into a way of life that uncle sam thinks I should be living. Adding the tax would put the government on a slippery slope. If they can add a tax on junk food, what can’t they add a tax on? As long as they think it’s bad for you, then can tax it, right?

    If they really want a change, they need to change people’s minds rather than their grocery bills.

  • I mean, I think you’ll be holding your breath for a long time if you’re hoping that any politician will eliminate agricultural subsidies. Agribusiness has serious political clout, and Americans are too tied up in the idea of the citizen farmer for that to ever happen. Better would be to restructure subsidies and direct them towards foods that aren’t corn or soybeans. It’s not terribly more likely, but at least there’s a slight chance of it happening.

  • Tax it or don’t. But please don’t justify by saying you’re doing it for my health. The logic behind it is faulty. So, if you make “junk food” as expensive as fresh food, people will instantly figure ‘oh, well, I’ll be out of five dollars anyway, I might as well buy the fruit instead of the oreos’?!? Has this type of ‘sin’ tax helped cut down on the amount of alcohol or cigs people buy?

  • ladyfresshh

    it seems to be a cart before the horse mentality.

    the first and easiest thing to act on, taxing the poor basically, instead of providing farmers markets and accessible fresh, good produce available at working class hours (a farmers market in an inconvenient area open from 8 – 6 does nothing for a person who works 8 – 6)

    frankly entrepeneurial fruit and veggie street carts have started in my neighborhood, i was used to seeing them in manhattan but it’s fantastic and likely short lived until some people annoyed person/business decides to complain about the carts

    i say subsidized these small business carts first

  • quadmoniker

    LF: Those carts didn’t happen on their own. They are subsidized. It was a big push by Bloomberg. Local bodegas protested, and his response was they should start selling fruits and veggies, then.

  • Scott

    I think the best plan is education not taxes. Require home econ be taught in high school. I was lucky enough to have working parents that cooked almost every meal and taught me how to cook.

  • quadmoniker

    After a conversation with G.D. I feel like I sound like a snotty bitch in my comments here, and the truth is, I sometimes am. I’ve decided to clarify my argument. I’ll start with an analogy.

    Cigarette taxes are regressive: lower-income people spend more of their income on cigarettes because they have less income. But no one (well, almost no one) argues that the cigarette tax hurts poor people. Smoking is unambiguously bad, and smokers cost society a lot of money in medical bills, second-hand pollution, etc. It’s not just that big brother wants to punish them or control their behavior. It’s that there has to be a way to internalize the costs of smoking in the actual transaction. Then, maybe people will consume less, and consume at a level society can better handle. And there’s evidence that it works.

    Junk food is the same, if we’re talking about sodas, potato chips and pre-packaged desserts like Little Debbie. Those things provide almost no nutritional value, and they’re artificially cheap because of agricultural policy. There’s also increasing evidence that they, too, are unambiguously bad for you. And trust me, I probably, more than anyone, crave sugar after a stressful day on my stressful job. But I can tell you that, even if I think it makes me feel good in the moment, it makes me feel anything but good over the long term. There are plenty of people from places like Yale who are starting to argue that refined sugar is actually addictive. One of the ways to get people to consider the long-term when they’re making a decision in the short term is to up the price by increasing a tax.

    I absolutely agree that there is an incredible access problem for the urban poor. There are too many neighborhoods without supermarkets, and food-stamp and WIC policy is incredibly stupid when it comes to encouraging healthy eating. There also should be a huge education campaign, and you’re all right, none of it makes a difference if lower-income mothers and fathers aren’t getting the support services they need to make it possible and easier to cook for their families. But all of those problems have to be addressed by better policy elsewhere. None of it is addressed by the absence of a junk food tax. Also, that will take government money, since private enterprise isn’t doing it on its own. Where can the money come from? How about a junk food tax.

    The view from the coasts tends to be myopic as well. About half of lower-income folk in the country live in rural areas, and they live in towns with one grocery store. They’re not making a choice between their bodega and an expensive market that’s a 10-block walk, they’re making a choice between the outer aisle and the inner one. And that’s largely because the middle aisles, where the processed foods are, provide the most caloric bang for their bucks. Changing America’s ridiculous agricultural policies will take care of that, but a tax on junk food wouldn’t hurt, either.

    And finally, even if this tax is regressive, it also hits middle class people who also are making choices to buy bad foods because the prices are lower than they should be to reflect their true cost. It’s not about the people who enjoy the occasional coke, but about the people who are buying whole cases of coke or juice boxes for their family’s lunches. These are people who, by and large, have the resources to make better food choices but don’t because the incentives to do so aren’t there.

    That said, I don’t completely think this is a good idea. It seems like one at first, but years from now someone will use it as an inroad to make stupid food policy in another way.

  • Remember Eric Schlosser’s formulation: a Chicken McNugget is made from corn-fed chicken, bound by corn derivatives, battered in cornmeal and fried in corn oil. it’s all corn.

    There’s corn in everything, which has to be attributed in large part to the might of the corn lobby.

  • quadmoniker

    Shani,
    That’s true, but it takes much less time to steam some vegetables than it does to heat up a frozen, pre-made lasagna. I think the cheapness of it plays a big roll, but I also think the loss of home economics and other classes that teach kids how to be real consumers and proficient home cooks is also to blame. Also, no one is replacing a meal with a soda or eat chips, they’re just drinking soda in addition to whatever else they eat. And I’m suspicious of the idea that people are always not cooking food because they are busy working or dealing with kids. For the most part, I think Americans aren’t cooking dinner because they’re watching television. I’m the first to admit that cooking is sometimes the last thing I want to do when I get home from work. I also try to prep things over the weekend so that it takes less time, and I think a little bit of planning would counteract most of the weeknight problems people have. I think a tax on junk food, along with policies that encourage buying healthier foods, is really all it would take to encourage folk to take an extra ten minutes in the kitchen. Any tax on consumables falls disproportionately on poor folk. But I doubt anyone will go bust to continue to buy soda.

  • Yes, there are lazy Americans who’d rather watch TV, and who don’t plan their weekly meals every Sunday, but I was referring to the poorer folk who would be hardest hit by this tax. And I don’t think poor people eat junk because they don’t plan ahead. They eat it because they can’t afford better, but also because, as I said before, they don’t have the capability to prepare better food; or they work jobs that don’t leave much time left for shopping and cooking a square meal.

    I don’t have a strong objection to taxing junk food, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “let’s make junk food more expensive and people will stop eating it!” I think Jamelle is right in suggesting policy that will incentivize buying produce and healthier options.

    Also, I surely cannot be the only person who has replaced a meal with chips and cookies.

  • Do you think that could really happen? I’m not familiar with the annotated history of ag subsidies, but I’m pretty sure they’ve been with us for a loooong time, and I’m not sure how it’s in Obama’s interest to end them.

  • I meant that that we would need a NEW Obama to end them, or the current Obama to have a ridiculously powerful campaign to end them. Not that they would end anytime soon. They have been with us longer than the war on drugs or the civil rights act… they probably aren’t goin away.

    I gotta word my crap better.

  • There are no subsidies that I can morally support though. Anything that screws up a Brazilian, Ghanaian, or Kenyan farmer is anathema to me.

    Good call on the ‘citizen farmer’ though. A (white) man in a flannel plaid shirt, chiseled-face, weather-beaten features, and a deep tan from working in the fields all day. Comes home at sundown, asks the son how he did in school, kisses the wife while she makes dinner, and masturbates furiously to bondage porn. The American Dream!

  • quadmoniker

    The problem is not people who occasionally crack open a soda to watch American Idol at the end of the day. The problem is people who think McDonald’s and pre-made frozen foods are acceptable substitutes for a homemade meal. And I’m not trying to minimize the time-stresses on poor people’s lives. I just think that’s only about half the story. Taxes provide incentives for people to buy less of what’s bad for them, like increased gas taxes over the summer made people take more public transport. More than that, though, they apply the costs of eating things like McDonald’s where they belong, on the people who consume McDonalds. Over time, eating those kinds of foods costs society: in loss of employability, serious health problems, and environmental problems. The costs have to be internalized in the transaction, or people will continue to consume them more than is good for all of us. That’s the government’s job, to make individual actors recognize the cost of their actions to all of us as a whole.

    And again, taxing junk food would have to go with real pushes to have fresh produce in grocery stores and health campaigns. But you can’t turn the idea that a tax that will be regressive at first is “hurting” poor people. Yes, it will initially fall more heavily on them mostly because they spend more of their income on food, but consuming those kinds of foods is doing way more harm. People as a whole will just turn to other foods. I won’t say Shani’s the only one who replaces meals with chips and cookies, but for the most part, those foods are snacks that no one has any business eating. People can continue to eat them if they want to, but only if there’s a way for them to fully understand the cost of what they’re doing. And nothing is cheaper than rice and beans.

  • ladyfresshh

    access is a problem as well, good supermarkets aren’t in much abundance

    quality produce is also a factor

    people tend to pick the nicely packaged junk food over old rotted fruits and vegetables and who can blame them?

  • ladyfresshh

    I had no idea bloomberg was behind it thank you QM, unfortunately though it isn’t govt subsidized seems to have been funded by a private donor so that program may end quick

  • Big Word

    If you want people to eat healthy you have to teach them to do so, then give them the a choice in the matter. The main problem with food choices in poor communities is that there aren’t many available to them. I knew it was that way with my family growing up in my old neighborhood. Subsidize farmers markets that carry fresh produce and people will use them. Honestly taxing junk food is stupid. I’d rather see something done to help people walk more, get more exercise and more preventative care from doctors.

  • quadmoniker

    I completely agree about home economics. It isn’t about domesticity. It’s about self-sufficiency.

  • I find I have to agree with ladyfresshh. I went to the University of Chicago in the 80′s and Hyde Park at the time was a cut above what we now call a food desert. After I finally got sick and tired paying through the nose for institutional food, I found I had to drive thirty minutes to find a decent supermarket where I could buy some broccoli and romaine.

    While I like the idea of discouraging people from eating and drinking the bad stuff, if that’s all that’s available in their neighborhood all you’re accomplishing is their further impoverishment.

    First, we need to make healthy food available to everyone, then we can talk about discouraging the consumption of unhealthy foods. Otherwise, we’re just instituting yet another regressive tax on people who can least afford it.

  • kaya

    as much as i agree with what you’re saying, increasing taxes have been shown to lower cigarette smoking rates. let me see if i can find the actual data for you…
    but i still do agree with most of what you’re saying.

  • robynj

    Thanks for this, QM.

    I guess I understand your position but like others, I think this idea is bullshit. A junk food tax is in no way (either by intention or byproduct) about healthy eating. And frankly, to hand me (or, rather, this country’s poor) a big fat turd, and cover it in bows and pretty lace is really damn offensive.

    What’s not included in this discussion is the strong cultural component associated with eating habits. The way we eat what we eat is often tied to family and tradition. So the smothered chicken and rice with butter that I ate thrice weekly as a child could hardly be called “junk food” but it’s the type of food that was on my table every night and frankly, we weren’t “poor.” I was primarily raised by working class grandparents who, in theory, had the means to do better. But I didn’t eat a fresh vegetable until I was well into my 20′s. This is about a cultural shift, not 86′ing chips from the diet.

    In fact, I don’t believe that the consumption of junk food is even real issue. When you’re poor, it’s about stretching. So even if you cook, you’re buying the biggest bushel of protein and a vat of lard/cooking oil because it’s easy and can last for weeks. It’s really about teaching people how to make BETTER food choices within the confines of a very small budget and without veering too far from their own cultural sensibilities. We’re talking about a huge shift in how people how people live and feed their families.

    Lastly, the idea that re-instating home ec classes as part of the answer is borderline offensive. That’s the priviliged, middle class answer. Not to be cliched, but we can’t talk about in-school kitchens in places where there are no textbooks. You don’t need to know how to cook to eat better — you just need to know what eating better MEANS, and have access to tools that facilitate that. I’m not convinced that those tools will be found in home ec.

  • jess

    Plenty of people argue that cigarette taxes are regressive; I certainly don’t support any increases to sales or sin taxes of any kind. Unless owning a yacht was defined as a sin, maybe. :-) Those taxes don’t discourage consumption, they just give people who are already struggling even less money for other expenses. I’d wholeheartedly support making other options available – by providing cheap/free/sliding scale & widely available quitting aids, for example – but never by first instituting or increasing a regressive tax.

    That said, there is a huge difference between cigarettes and food: food is necessary to survive. It’s true that, say, potato chips aren’t necessary to survive, but calories are, and a sin tax is the most damaging and least effective tool to make food available to people who need it.

    Also, your distinction between rural/urban or middle/coastal doesn’t make a lot of sense. In rural areas (which are in CA & NY as well as Kansas and Wyoming) people often don’t have access to grocery stores anymore than people in urban areas do. In a city, the supermarket might be an hour long bus ride (a 10 block walk would welcome!) to the other side of town; in a rural area, the supermarket might be a 20 mile trip to the nearest town. In rural areas the supermarkets aren’t supplemented by bodegas, but by gas stations with convenience stores and fast food places attached. (When our car broke, which it did often, we’d have to walk the 2 mi to the nearest gas station & pick up whatever groceries we could afford there. Everything was overpriced to begin with, but that did not make us magically able to get to the grocery store in the nearest town). And unless you put a 500% sin tax on hamburgers (not something I’m advocating!), a McDonald’s salad (which doesn’t use the most nutritious greens to begin with and is probably loaded with sodium) is still $5+ while hamburgers are on the dollar menu.

    Finally, I think we have a substantial disagreement (which we maybe just have to agree to disagree about) on the role of government. I do not think the government should be trying to make us more fit citizens, more productive individuals contributing to the nation–that has been used to justify *so many* racist and xenophobic and homophobic missions in the name of “public health” that it makes me shudder to think about it. The government (and medicine/public health, for that matter) should provide the most marginalized people with a greater range of options and with the knowledge necessary to navigate those options, but it has no right deciding to tax individuals on “sins” that they (or you) find morally questionable. The government has every right, IMO, to do things like banning trans fats or eliminating subsidies or instituting other policies that primarily affect the corporations that determine which foods are available and affordable to us.

    Bottom line: a tax on junk food would not stop people from buying junk food, but it would make those of us barely eking by already less able to buy other necessities. All harm no good.

  • the black scientist

    oh! disregard my question above. :)

  • quadmoniker

    Robynnj: I don’t think smothered chicken is junk food at all. I think it’s delicious and belongs just fine in a well-balance diet. Eating fatty foods too often is bad but home-prepped food like this isn’t the issue, I don’t think. Chicken is chicken. Chips aren’t potatoes. And lard is MUCH better for you than Crisco. It’s not about fat versus low-fat. It’s about processed versus unprocessed.

  • quadmoniker

    Sorry, I misunderstood your point before. You’re right, it’s stupid to talk about home econ classes while there are so many other fundamental needs to be met. But as long as we’re making a wish-list for education, I think home ec should be part of it.

    Also, someone else made the point today about the cultural component of eating, and about how they feel that’s really sacrosanct. I can understand that point of view. I’m kind of the opposite. Food is one place I don’t mind the government giving nudges, as long as they use the money for the things they say they’re going to use it for. I grew up where all the vegetables were canned and all the meat was fried. There wasn’t fresh seafood until I moved away. But again, I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not so much that my mom and dad didn’t cook fresh produce, it was more the constant supply of “goodies,” mainly Fudge Rounds and Star Crunches, that might have been less ubiquitous had they been pricier.

  • quadmoniker

    Food policy would make those hamburgers more expensive than the salad. A junk food tax on something as fatty as fries would up the price to be closer to something like a salad. And a tax on all of it would discourage discretionary spending.

    Look, I don’t disagree with you that rural poor face problems too. As you already said, though, food at gas stations is prohibitively expensive. But what you’re doing is just describing a bunch of problems people face in rural poverty. If someone’s car breaks down and they have to buy food at a gas station, they have a host of other problems that have nothing to do with junk food. They don’t have to buy potato chips, they sell milk and cereal and sometimes even meat. The only reason people buy potato chips in the numbers they do is because the price is low and the calories are high. Change food policy to make better calories less expensive. Food policy is already making junk food artificially cheap. Correct the problem either the ideal way by ending agricultural subsidies or the possibly politically-sustainable way by adding a tax. Either way, you can’t argue that government adding a tax would create a problem that doesn’t exist. It already exists, and a tax would just be a way to try to correct it.

    I disagree that junk food is an “other necessity” that would crowd out other necessities if the price were higher. It’s not a necessity at all. It’s something that should be a rarity. Why not price it that way. In fact, if it was too expensive to buy potato chips and soda, people would have MORE money to spend on spaghetti and sauce and rice and beans and chicken or whatever else. People are conflating junk food with anything that’s not salmon and arugula, and I don’t think that’s what people are saying.

    Finally, I’ll just say that I don’t know how I ended up in the position of defending the tax, I don’t even think it’s the best idea. Junk food has its place, and fast food restaurants represented the democratization of eating out, and I think that’s fantastic. I don’t want only rich people to be the ones who can eat at restaurants, and i don’t want rich people telling poor people how to eat. Americans, all of them, have real health problems that are encouraged by our screwed up food policies. There just has to be something to help individual people think about the long-term when they’re making momentary choices. And if foods with high amounts of HFCS, for example, have a high tax and drive down consumption, maybe producers will change their content. It might incentivize the producers as well. It’s not a one-sided transaction.

    But a single regressive tax does not make regressive policy if it’s balanced out by the kind of progressive initiatives the administration is saying they want to take. The tax system of Britain, for example, could be argued to be overall regressive, but most of that money goes back in huge transfers to the poor. All sales taxes are regressive, simply because everyone pays the same rate. A junk food tax actually could be used to create some of the programs and reform others that people need. Americans like taxes and initiatives that seem to go together: a tax on junk food that funds nutrition programs is like a gas tax that funds highways. People think it makes sense, and even though they might complain about price they understand the idea. Middle class and rich folk buy junk food too. In absolute numbers, they even buy more, it’s just that it makes up a smaller proportion of their income. That means they’ll pay more money. If you could find a better way to get middle class and suburbanites to pay for nutrition programs for the urban poor, then be my guest. Personally, I think framing it as a junk food sin tax that serves as a corrective policy for all the havoc we’ve wreaked is an easier sell.

  • Coward

    I think part of the point, Amanda525, is that we are already forced into a way of life through agribusiness and farm subsidies. What we have now is a false sense of choice that is, in actuality, constrained by what the government has made available to us. Further, that way of life has a disproportionate number of negative consequences for the poor.

    The barriers to consuming healthy food are not individual issues such as time or talent or a moral commitment to healthy bodies. The barriers are broad and systematic — access and expense.

    I’m not convinced that a junk food tax will have the desired result — it seems to me that changing people’s grocery bills by making healthy food less expensive would be a more effective policy.

  • the black scientist

    i completely agree with you. i’m curious as to your thoughts on the cigarette tax? similar arguments have been made against that.

  • quadmoniker

    I linked to Jamelle’s post at United States of Jamerica in one of my comments. He has the data. Here is it: http://usjamerica.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/re-junk-food-taxes/

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