Are Junk Food Taxes Fair?

(x-posted from here)

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?


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • 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

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  • 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.

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