Should Junk Food Be Sin-Taxed?

Let me take this opportunity to discuss the proposed surtax on soft drinks to help pay the costs of universal health care. First off, I’m for it, and here’s why:

If we go to a universal health care plan, that would mean that we are all in the same insurance pool: we all put money in, and the sick and infirm take money out as needed to provide for their health care. That means that those of us who do preventative care, live a healthy lifestyle and cultivate our health are subsidizing the health care expenses of those who do not take care of their health. Obesity is at epidemic proportions in this country, and has been for some years. The costs of obesity in terms of disease has proportionally been on the rise, namely diabetes is now epidemic also. Other obesity related conditions include hypertension and hypercholesterolemia. These diseases lead to increased incidents of strokes, heart attacks and in the case of diabetes, kidney failure (requiring dialysis and transplants), blindness, peripheral neuropathy due to poor circulation, leading to amputations and so on. Obviously the dollar costs of these procedures as well as on going pharmaceutical use to treat these conditions is high: 150-200 billion $/annually in the US. (Smoking, for comparison, costs 120-150 billion annually). In a universal system that gets averaged out to all who pay in, meaning the healthy subsidize these costs as the rates rise for everyone in the system in order to pay out for those requiring the care.

Obesity is caused by poor diet. The cheap junk foods are the cause of the obesity epidemic. The government subsidizes wheat, corn, soy and tobacco. All of these contribute to poor health, and the heavily subsidized foods are used to make junk food cheap. Corn is used to make corn syrup, the cheap sugar substitute heavily utilized in junk food. Junk food is mainly purchased because it is cheap, so price directly correlates to its use. When price increases, usage decreases. As junk food is a direct cause of obesity and it’s related diseases (diabetes, hypertension, hypercholestemia), decreasing the use of junk food will have a direct effect of reducing these diseases and the costs to society (under a universal health care system) for treating them. And because folks choose to eat these offending foods largely because they are cheap, one of the most direct results one can have in affecting behavior that causes obesity is too raise the price of the foods that cause it: junk foods. (Which by the way isn’t really food: contrary to popular belief soda, red wine, chocolate and potato chips are not the 4 food groups, and corn chips do not count as a serving of vegetables).

Therefore I feel not only that the cost of soft drinks ought to be taxed, but all junk foods: fast food, donuts, pizza, Twinkies, chips, candy and so on, with the proceeds going to pay for the universal health care/insurance, to offset the costs of additional health care that the consumption of those offending foods cause are incurred by society.

It seems to me that in a society that sin taxes smoking and drinking (cigarettes and alcohol) obesity should be similarly sin-taxed by taxing junk foods.

In addition, I advocate for
tax breaks to companies and individuals rewarding preventative care, such as gym memberships, healthy foods at cafeterias and menus, weight loss, smoking cessation, acupuncture, chiropractic and nutritional counseling, stress management, meditation, yoga, tai qi and qi gong classes. Tax breaks should be given when healthy foods are displayed prominently at eye level in stores and cafeterias, with junk foods and sodas/alcohol placed at the bottom/floor level of display cases, or high on shelves where children are present. Rather than subsidizing foods that cause disease, thereby increasing costs to the health care system that we all must incur, namely tobacco, soy, corn and wheat (these subsidized foods become the cheap, raw material of junk foods), the government should instead be subsidizing produce and organically grown foods (which have higher nutritional content and incur less cost to the environment). Remembering that fresh produce is often unavailable or entirely unaffordable in impoverished neighborhoods. As the NY Times reports in the article pasted below, the cost of produce has risen 40% in the past 3 decades, while the price of soda (made with government subsidized corn syrup) has fallen 33% during that same time period. Combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and increased use of restaurants and fast food = a fool proof recipe for our obesity epidemic.

The following article from today’s Sunday magazine section of the NY Times:
Fat Tax by David Leonhardt lays out a well reasoned argument for surtaxing soft drinks. He postulates such a tax to lower the epidemic obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes, facing our country. These diseases are expensive to treat, increasing costs for everyone thru medicare, medicaid and raising private insurance premiums as the aggregate health care costs increase. Leonhardt argues that sodas (and i would say all junk food) have similar public health costs by causing obesity as cigarettes in causing lung cancer. KB