Should we tax junk food to control obesity?

junk foodAmericans are getting fatter and some legislators are looking to tax junk food to control obesity. Based on the history of how heavily taxing cigarettes changed personal behavior, extra taxes on soda may stop people from sugaring themselves to death.

When I started to smoke, at age 13, cigarettes cost $ .30 per pack. Around that time, almost 3/4 of American males smoked. After the Surgeon General's report came out in 1964 identifying the health risks of smoking, there were media campaigns, restrictions on cigarette advertising and other efforts to get people to quit. But the only intervention that really was effective for people to kick the habit was hitting them in the pocketbook with additional taxes. Each time the tax on cigarettes increased, more people quit. Currently, 21% of American adults smoke as the cost of a pack of cigarettes hovers around six dollars.

Today, there is a new health crisis-- obesity. In 1950, obesity was not considered to be a disease. Today it is viewed as an epidemic and the number one threat to health in the United States. From 1960 to 2000, the number of overweight people between the ages of 20 and 74 increased from 31.5 to 33.6 percent in U.S. The number of obese people during this same time period more than doubled--from 13.3 to 30.9 percent, with most of this rise occurring in the past 20 years.

From 1988 to 2000, the prevalence of extreme obesity increased from 2.9 to 4.7 percent, up from 0.8 percent in 1960. In 1991, four states had obesity rates of 15 percent or higher, and none had obesity rates above 16 percent. By 2000, every state except Colorado had obesity rates of 15 percent or more, and 22 states had obesity rates of 20 percent or more. Currently:

  • 58 million people are overweight, 40 million are obese, and 3 million are morbidly obese
  • Eight out of 10 are over 25 lbs. overweight
  • 78% of Americans are not meeting basic activity level recommendations
  • 25% are completely sedentary
  • 76% increase in Type II diabetes in adults 30-40 years old since 1990

Now, a number of legislators and researchers are suggesting a new approach to the obesity epidemic--tax soda. New York Gov. David Paterson says taxing soft drinks could help combat obesity. A study by Harvard researchers found that an additional 12-ounce soft drink consumed per day increases the risk of a child becoming obese by 60 percent. For adults, the association is similar. It is estimated an 18 percent tax will reduce consumption of soda by 5 percent. Additional taxes could further reduce consumption.

The taxes raised could be used to fund education programs and efforts to improve health. Perhaps we can have the same success with obesity that we have had with smoking.

Barbara Bartlein is the People Pro. For her FREE e-mail newsletter, please visit: The People Pro.
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