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Would Junk Food Tax Curb Childhood Obesity?

May 25, 2010

Coloring Fun

Extreme measures are needed to deal with the childhood obesity epidemic, there’s no doubt about it, but is taxation a step that would help? For purposes of this discussion, let’s define junk food as whatever the kids find most difficult to resist — their abused substance of choice — if phrased in the addiction model. Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website polled youngsters on this very subject. The list is predictable — cookies, pastry, chips, soda pop, chocolate. Sweets predominate over the salty foods. As a general principle, anything that can be sold through a vending machine probably isn’t fit to eat, but would taxation result in people eating less of it? How would a tax on junk food help reduce the childhood obesity epidemic?

There has been a lot of discussion about this in New York State lately, as we learn from Smita Bhooplapur of the Legislative Gazette. Gov. David A. Paterson started the new year by telling his constituents that a tax on sweet beverages would be a good idea, and the state Health Department concurs. The reason they give is the link between soda pop and health problems: heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In March, Prof. Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity raised another point:

Calories from beverages in the liquid state are harder to expend from the body, leading to excess calorie intake.

He is backed up by the state Health Department, which points to a study published by the International Journal of Obesity. Basically it says that when people get their calories from liquids, they don’t work them off. Brownell is worried about not only the difficulty of burning these sugary calories, but their possible relationship to caffeine and sugar addiction. Brownell was also the co-author of a New England Journal of Medicine article that finds a connection between sugary drinks and body weight. The journalist Smita Bhooplapur says,

Brownell believes a reason for this phenomenon could be that the body is accustomed to nutrients being delivered in the solid form and is unable to recognize or receive nutrients via a liquid medium.

This might be a misinterpretation of whatever Brownell said, because if the human body can’t use nutrients delivered by a liquid medium, at least two groups are in a lot of trouble: hospital patients receiving nutrition via intravenous line or NG tube, and infants fed mothers’ milk. Richard F. Daines, New York’s State Health Commissioner, reminds voters that the Journal of American Dietetic Association links sugar-sweetened beverages to the problem of overweight in children, while childhood obesity is, in turn, linked to diabetes.

The picture on this page, in its pristine, uncolored state, appeared in the state’s Legislative Gazette. It comes from an “activity page” which is part of an eight-page section in that publication devoted to the proposed tax. The artist is Robert Duriak of the Department of Health, which believes a tax will reduce soda consumption by 10 percent, and, of course, raise revenue for the financially staggering state.

It is said that 60 percent of state’s population is overweight or obese, resulting in annual health care costs of more than 7.5 billion dollars a year. The Health Dept. also believes that “those most sensitive to price would see the greatest health benefits.” In other words, such a tax would do the most good to those with the least amount of disposable income.

In 2008, at the National Childhood Obesity Congress, Dr. Pretlow questioned the acting U.S. Surgeon General, Steven K. Galson, about whether a tax on junk food would be feasible:

He felt that taxing junk food was unrealistic, as consumers and food companies would strongly resist such.

Why would consumers resist? For one thing, if the object of the tax is to save kids from obesity, then this measure would discriminate against kids from better-off families, because they could still afford to buy the stuff that makes them fat and unhealthy. It would imply that we don’t care about the health of all kids, only the ones so poor that they might be protected by the addition of a tax. Also, a certain number of Americans would, as always, cite chapter and verse to prove how much our nation’s Founders would have hated the idea.

It’s not an easy issue. Even if a person’s first instinct is to say, “Sure, go ahead, tax the junk food,” further reflection brings up possible unintended consequences. What if we end up with tax on all food, which some places have so far escaped? It might have to be “all or nothing,” because how can the line be drawn between what is or is not junk food? You don’t need to be a fan of big corporations to realize the basic legal unfairness of making those kinds of distinctions between products. This could open up a new sub-specialty of jurisprudence and give a whole new meaning to the term Food Court.

And, right or wrong, would it work? Would a tax on soda pop and junk food actually cut down consumption by children and teens?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What food do you have the most problem with?,” BlubberBuster.com
Source: “The health benefits of a soda tax,” Legislative Gazette, 05/10/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,” Amazon.com
Image of coloring cartoon from Legislative Gazette used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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