Childhood obesity is a complex issue, ad medical experts and social scientist have been in a gridlock about how to fix the problem for years. Now some economists argue that taxing junk foods could tip the scales in the right direction. One study by the University of North Carolina showed that a 10% price increase on soft drinks and pizza caused customers to consume far fewer calories from these items. A $1.00 price increase for soft drinks resulted in an average weight loss of 2.34 lbs. By manipulating prices through taxes, childhood obesity could be dramatically reduced or even prevented altogether. Increased taxation has already been proven effective at reducing rates of smoking in both teens and adults. Could a simple tax be all it takes to combat childhood obesity?
One organization, Action on Sugar, has proposed a plan to target childhood obesity right where it starts. This plan outlines a reduction of sugars and fats in preprocessed foods, bans on marketing junk food to kids, bans on allowing junk food companies to sponsor sports, limiting availability and portion size of sugary drinks, and adding a sugar tax. This last item, the sugar tax, is a big deal. If junk foods are more expensive than healthier options, this will help steer consumers toward better choices at the grocery store. If apples were drastically less expensive than cookies, children might have a better shot at good health. Subsidizing healthy foods while adding taxes to refined and highly processed foods may help to set the prices where they need to be to prevent childhood obesity.
Some countries, like Denmark and France, have already imposed a tax on unhealthy foods. Unhealthy foods have to be judged against a fixed standard in order for this tax to work. The tax needs to target the unhealthiest foods; an effective tax cannot be on total fat or carbohydrate content. It is important to focus the tax more specifically on sugars and refined carbohydrates, which have been found to be the most harmful contributors to childhood obesity, rather than on total percentages of fat and carbohydrates. Some complex carbohydrates and natural fats are important for health and even encourage weight loss. By following the example of Denmark and France, other countries could effectively battle childhood obesity using strategic taxation instead of dieting.
New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg banned the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces in his city. This proved to be an unpopular decision that evolved into a full-blown fiasco, and people were very upset about it. Taxation would be an easier way to steer people in the direction of healthier choices while still allowing consumers the freedom of choice. Taxation would simply make the healthier choice appear more attractive. One study published by the British Medical Journal suggests the target taxation amount should be about 20 percent and should apply to a variety of junk foods. Complementary subsidies on fresh produce would help bolster the positive public health effects of such a move.
When deciding which laws and policies to put into effect, voters and lawmakers should consider what is best for the children. If implementing a tax on junk food can make a difference in childhood obesity–and the associated long term negative health affects like diabetes and heart disease–it should at least be consideration.