A federal tax on junk food and soda is both legally and administratively feasible, a review of U.S. tax laws and policies concluded.
Rather than taxing consumers when they buy junk food, the best approach would be a federal excise tax on junk food manufacturers, similar to the tax the government already levies on alcohol manufacturers, said researchers led by Jennifer Pomeranz, JD, MPH, of the College of Global Public Health at New York University in New York City.
The junk food excise tax could be graduated, based on levels of unhealthy ingredients like sugar and salt, just as the government taxes beverages with a higher alcohol content at a higher rate, Pomeranz and colleagues said in the American Journal of Public Health.
“Graduated taxes may be a promising method to guide consumers toward healthier products and encourage industry reformulation, and have also been suggested by economists in other health contexts,” the review authors said. “In addition, a graduated junk food tax seems administratively feasible on the basis of identified evidence on existing federal graduated alcohol beverage taxes.
“Whereas local taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are rapidly growing in popularity and political acceptance, these do not have the broad effects that a national tax might have,” they said. “In addition, substantial disease burden results from other dietary factors, including processed meats and ultra-processed foods high in starch, added sugars, salt, and trans fat.”
Some cities in the United States, starting with Philadelphia and Berkeley, have passed taxes on soda and sugar-sweetened beverages in order to reduce consumption, noted Lauri Wright, PhD, director of the clinical nutrition program at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, who was not involved in the research. Such taxes have also been implemented in Europe, most notably in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
However, “such taxes have shown mixed results and generally work better in combination with education,” Wright said, adding that “a tax alone can’t fix obesity, diabetes and other obesity-related diseases.”
Pomeranz and colleagues conducted a systematic review of the scientific literature, U.S. food tax laws, and federal taxing mechanisms. They identified peer-reviewed journal articles that discussed and defined food products that would qualify for a junk food tax. They used Congress.gov and the UConn Redd Center’s legislative database to examine federal and state bills and laws that were proposed or passed from 2012-2017. They also researched the federal tax code using the U.S. Master Excise Tax Guide, LexisNexis, and the Treasury Department’s web sites.
Previous research has examined beverage tax options, global food tax policy, and definitions of taxable food, but no previous study has evaluated the legal and administrative mechanisms to define and implement a U.S. federal junk food tax to improve diet quality, Pomeranz’s group said.
While a federal junk food tax may be legally and administratively feasible, political feasibility is another thing entirely, Pomeranz and colleagues said. “Political feasibility in the current political climate is uncertain and seems unlikely. However, compared with legal or administrative feasibility, political considerations can evolve quickly depending on current events, public attention, election results, and shifting alliances,” they said.
Wright, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agreed that a federal junk food tax would have little political traction.
“Given the current political climate, it is doubtful we will see a federal tax,” Wright said in an email to MedPage Today. “The focus should be on motivating people to implement healthy behaviors rather than punishing people for bad behaviors. Motivation techniques would include incentives and tax breaks. Further, increasing the access to affordable healthy foods is important along with improving the physical environment to encourage more physical activity.”
The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The study authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.