Taxing Unhealthy Foods

At the World Health Organization’s annual summit on Monday, a statement was read declaring the need to tax foods that are deemed harmful to overall global health. As a United Nations investigator, professor Olivier de Schutter, from Belgium, declared that a global pact is required in order to take on the epidemic of obesity.

De Schutter went on to say that the prevalence of unhealthy diets has taken the place of tobacco as the greatest threat to health worldwide. The recommendation being made was that the efforts to regulate tobacco could be a model for how to proceed with the regulation of food. De Schutter has been working on food issues for the UN since 2008.

The 2005 UN convention for the control of tobacco was directed at the reduction of tobacco related health problems and deaths. Two years ago, de Schutter suggested in a report that a similar pact for food would include the taxation of products that are found to be unhealthy, regulating fatty, salty and sugary foods as well as creating strict guidelines for advertisements for “junk food.”

Also in that report was an advisement to completely overhaul the farm subsidies system. A system that currently rewards agricultural endeavors that focus on cheap ingredients would need to evolve into one that provides support and subsidies for local producers, thereby expanding consumer access to quality foods that are affordable.

De Schutter’s statement on Monday was communicated through the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. He wanted to make clear that all attempts at the promotion of quality diets and battling the scourge of obesity will only be successful if the systems that support food production, distribution, advertising, etc. are functioning appropriately.

In a New York Times article from July 2011, by Mark Bittman, these very suggestions are made. Tax the junk foods and subsidize the healthy options. However where de Schutter is hoping much of the change will come through major alterations in food industry practices, Bittman suggests that the food producers should not be held responsible for that. Their focus is profits and their bottom line. Public health is simply not their issue. Until, of course, some other causal agent reorients the matter.

In Bittman’s opinion, that causal agent should be the government. By fulfilling its function as a broker for the good of the public, the federal government could institute an heroic reparation for the nation.

Bittman ties things up quite neatly. Tax foods like soda, doughnuts and the ultra-processed. Earmark that tax income for programs that will encourage and reward Americans who produce and consume the now more affordable and available healthy options.

But, would taxing, for example soda pop, actually do anything more than build revenue? Trevor Butterworth, a writer for Forbes, explored that question in September, 2009. He pointed out the growing momentum for such a tax as well as the mounting concerns regarding the health risks of an obesity epidemic. Butterworth cited a report that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that week. The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages made the argument that the federal government should involve itself in the market because consumers do not acknowledge the consequences to their health or the health of their children.

Though admittedly not academic, Butterworth asks some valuable questions about the suggestion that taxing soda will make a marked difference in obesity rates. Firstly, using cigarettes as a model is faulty. While there is a direct linear causality between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, no such link has been conclusively proven for soda consumption. Butterworth also asks that were the consumer to decide that their favorite soda is now too expensive is it likely that they will simply switch to drinking some other high-calorie beverage? With the dangers inherent in many diet soda ingredients, is it logical to push the consumer in that direction?

One final point, in the five states with the highest rates of obesity (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia) there is a tax on sodas. Three of the least obese states (Colorado, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia) have no soda tax. This data seems to indicate that the problem is not so much soda pop, but overall eating habits, economics and access to healthful foods. Perhaps just taxing sodas is not enough.

The argument made by de Schutter is strong and not one to be ignored. As the issue of obesity, as well as other health risks brought on by unhealthy diets, are not improving on their own, a complete overhaul and new, globally enforced guidelines for governments and food producers may be the answer. A tax on unhealthy foods could potentially reverse many of the major food related problems faced by a population that may require some caring guidance.

Opinion by Stacy Lamy





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