Taxing Junk Food To Prevent Obesity Essay


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).

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?

Tagged: Consumer Affairs, Food and Drink, Health and Beauty, junk food

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Fat Tax: Why we should tax unhealthy foods

If a government could introduce a relatively painless way to prevent 3,000 lives being lost through terrorist action, do you think we would hesitate to introduce such a policy?

A report by the University of Nottingham and University of Oxford [1], claimed that introducing a tax on unhealthy foods would save, at least, 3,000 lives a year from heart disease. The authors also claim this is a conservative estimate, because it ignores the benefits from the reduced incidence of diabetes, strokes and other obesity related illnesses.

Yet, despite the real benefits promised, many politicians and consumers were quick to dismiss the idea. Is it really a good idea to introduce a fat tax, or do Big Macs deserve to remain cheap and free of extra tax?

Arguments for a Tax on Unhealthy Foods

1. Externalities of Unhealthy Foods.

Unhealthy eating has an impact on ourselves but also on the rest of society. Obesity related diseases cost the UK £3.4bn per year. [2] The cost of Obesity in the US is estimated at $75 bn.[3] If we choose to eat foods that make us unhealthy and obese, this creates external costs such as:
  1. Medical Costs – treating obesity.
  2. Lost productivity at Work e.g. Time off sick
  3. Premature death

Therefore, the government should collect sufficient tax from unhealthy foods to pay for the external costs that they create. It is the same principle as to why petrol and cigarettes are taxed; e.g. higher petrol tax is justified because petrol causes pollution.

The external cost of unhealthy food is not easy to calculate, but this is not a reason to avoid having a tax. The point is that at the moment society is effectively subsidising the consumption of unhealthy foods, and ultimately it is the taxpayer who has to pay for this.

2. Personal Cost of Obesity

Eating unhealthy foods increases the likelihood of obesity, early death, depression and a whole catalogue of related problems [4]. Higher prices would discourage people from consuming unhealthy foods. It may not stop people eating fatty foods completely, but this is not the aim. Reducing consumption of fatty and salty foods would have a significant benefit in improving health and personal well being.

3. It will save lives

Currently, more than 216,000 people in the UK die from heart attacks and strokes each year [5]. Heart disease is the second most common cause of death. The report suggests that 3,000 lives per year could easily be saved in the UK. As well as saving lives, reducing obesity will also improve the quality of life.

Arguments against a Fat Tax

1. It is unfair to tax fat people. It is discrimination

This is not a tax on fat people. A government inspector is not going to go around with a weighing scale, dishing out tax penalties for people who tip over the scale. This is a tax on unhealthy foods, paid by everyone who chooses to consume them.

2. It's just another scheme to raise government revenue

A tax on unhealthy foods should be revenue neutral. It is not about raising total tax revenue, it is about switching the tax burden. If the government raised £2 billion a year from such a tax, this tax could be used to subsidise healthy foods, pay for health care or reduce other types of tax.

3. It is a tax on the poor

The argument is that those on low incomes are more likely to consume unhealthy foods, therefore, this tax will increase inequality. However, if a tax on fatty foods saves lives, we should not avoid implementing it just because it is the poor who will mostly benefit. If we are really concerned about the impact on equality, the revenue from a fat tax can be targeted to the benefit of the poor. An increase in inequality need not occur from a fat tax.

4. Nanny State
  • Who is the government to tell people what to eat? If people want to eat salty and fatty foods then let them.
But, the whole point is people are still free to consume as much salty and fatty foods as they like. It is just that now they have to pay a fairer reflection of the true cost to society. If you got drunk and caused economic damage, has not the state a right to make you pay for the economic costs of your drunkenness? Similarly society has a right to make you pay for the economic cost of unhealthy food. As an additional benefit, you will probably live longer and feel happier.

5. It won't have any effect
  • Look at smoking; the government tax smoking, but people still smoke. Tax on petrol has not stopped people driving.
Demand maybe inelastic for fatty foods, but they will reduce consumption by a certain amount, and this is the intended effect. For example, a tax on an extra large Big Mac, may reduce consumption by 20%. Instead of eating 10 a week, some people may not only consume 8 a week. This reduction of 20% will have a big impact on improving health. The aim is not to stop people eating unhealthy foods, but reduce excessive consumption. In moderation fatty and salty foods do not cause a problem.

6. Obese people die early and save the government paying pensions

In a perverse way, this is actually a good argument. Because people who eat unhealthy foods have a shorter life expectancy the government will pay out less state pensions. Therefore, this reduces the external cost of obesity and so lessens the justification for a tax based on externalities. However, in another way, the fact that people die early is hardly a powerful argument for not trying to stop it.


[1] The study from the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham claims that taxing food containing lots of fat, salt and sugar would prevent more than 3,000 deaths a year from heart attacks and strokes. See Channel 4 report on Fat Tax

[2] Cost of obesity in the UK is £3.7 billion per year, according to a Government white paper on obesity. See report

[3] Cost of obesity in the US ($40 billion of this cost came from public taxes.)

[4] Link between Obesity and depression at Psychology Today

[5] British Heart Foundation

[6] BBC video on the Fat Tax

The author is this post particularly enjoys deep friend Mars Bars with extra salt.

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