January 12, 2006

The Fat Tax: A Controversial Tool in War Against Obesity

It's used as a levy on 'junk' foods, and to promote nutrition programs

In America's ongoing battle of the bulge, one strategy to combat the nation's obesity epidemic has generated more than a decade's worth of attention and controversy.

Popularly known as the "fat tax" or the "Twinkie tax," the concept first gained widespread attention in 1994 when Yale University psychology professor Kelly D. Brownell outlined the idea in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Addressing what he called a "dire set of circumstances," Brownell proposed two food-tax options: A big tax, in the range of 7 percent to 10 percent, to discourage the purchase of unhealthy processed foods while subsidizing healthier choices; or a much smaller tax to fund long-term public health nutrition programs.

"The American food system is set up as if maximizing obesity were the aim," Brownell told HealthDay. "So the idea was to tax either certain classes of foods -- like soft drinks or fat foods -- or to just tax specific foods high in calories or low in nutrition. Then you use the income from such a tax to subsidize the sale of healthy foods in order to reverse what is the unfortunate reality now: that it costs more to eat a healthier diet."

The tax, said Brownell, would be a pro-active response to a food industry and consumer culture that increasingly promotes high-fat/low-nutrition products as the cheapest, tastiest, most convenient and most available dietary options.

Brownell emphasized that, if properly implemented, fat taxes could yield major benefits. For example, slapping a single penny tax onto the cost of soft drinks across the country would generate almost $1.5 billion annually -- a figure that far exceeds the budgets of current government-sponsored nutrition programs, he said.

The non-profit Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine (IOM) reports that, in recent years, levies of this kind have, in fact, been imposed -- with states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington creating "fat taxes" on soft drinks sold within their borders.

Other states such as California, Maine and Maryland have also experimented with hefty "fat-tax" legislation, Brownell said. However, all the levies were ultimately repealed, highlighting several practical problems with the fat-tax concept identified by both Brownell and the IOM.

One big problem is that money collected through fat taxes has typically not been earmarked for obesity-prevention programs or healthy food subsidies; instead they were often used to cover budget deficits.

Concerns have also been raised that such a tax is inherently regressive, meaning it punishes poorer people who must spend much of their limited income on food.

And although the fat tax appears to have gained popularity as a theoretical approach to weight management, deciding exactly which products are unhealthy, taxable foods is a tricky practical matter.

Nonetheless, while the IOM has remained neutral on the fat-tax issue, some legislators across the country are moving full-steam ahead to get food-related levies on the books.

New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Democrat from New York City, is one such proponent of the fat tax.

For three years Ortiz has championed a bill that would ding any foods high in calories, fat or carbs -- including perennial favorites such as potato chips, candies and french fries. The bill would also add a one-cent surcharge on video games.

The taxes would generate an estimated $50 million a year, and all the money would be used to augment the state's $1.5 million budget for the Childhood Obesity Prevention Program. The program, established in 2001, is designed to promote healthy eating habits among children and adults through family physician interventions and after-school dietary and physical activity workshops.

"We have a very chronic epidemic regarding obesity," said Ortiz. "And we think the food tax is part of the solution. This will be a vehicle to fund the obesity prevention program that can provide the services needed to assure that our children and the working families of the state of New York will get the proper information on healthy lifestyles. It will save lives and the next generation."

More information

For more on food nutrition and childhood obesity, visit the Institute of Medicine.