Activists and meddling lawmakers have toyed with the idea of taxing certain foods and ingredients to curb obesity.

  • Twinkie Tax inventor Kelly Brownell advocates “slapping high-fat, low-nutrition food with a substantial government ‘sin’ tax.” According to him, certain foods are too “convenient, accessible, good-tasting … and cheap.” Brownell has also called for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • California State Senator Deborah Ortiz introduced the “California Soda Tax Act” in 2002, a measure that threatened to impose a nine-cent tax on every two-liter bottle of soda sold in the state. Senator Alex Padilla, chair of the state’s Select Committee on Obesity and Diabetes, held a hearing in 2009 to explore the link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and obesity and argued, “We cannot ignore however that while sugar-sweetened drink consumption has increased…so has the rate of obesity in California and throughout the nation.”
  • Legislators in Washington State, Washington D.C., and Colorado approved legislation in 2010 that would slap extra taxes on all “carbonated beverages” and candy. Governor Deval Patrick of Massachussetts and Governor David Paterson of New York also advocated similar policies, but were met with resistance.
  • Under the guise of trimming waistlines, New York State Senator Felix Ortiz proposed legislation to tax not only “fatty foods” but “movie tickets, video games and DVD rentals.”

What does the research say? Scientific evidence suggests that a tax on certain ingredients would miss the central contributor to obesity, namely physical inactivity.

  • Steven Blair of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research wrote in 2005: “The obesity epidemic is driven, in my view, more by decreases in average daily energy expenditure than by increases in average daily energy intake. Unfortunately we do not have data on average daily energy expenditure or on changes in this variable, and the data we have on average daily energy intake are questionable. Therefore the fundamental cause of the increases in obesity prevalence observed over the past several years cannot be determined.”
  • A fat tax attempts to change the so-called “toxic food environment.” But it doesn’t exist. In 2005 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that overall consumption of “good” foods, such as fresh fruits, is increasing.
  • Taxing so-called junk food while subsidizing “healthy” food makes little sense when the latter is already affordable. According to the USDA: “Among the 69 forms of fruits and 85 forms of vegetables included in the analysis, more than half were estimated to cost 25 cents or less per serving in 1999, and 86 percent of all vegetables and 78 percent of all fruit cost less than 50 cents a serving.”
  • A 2008 analysis concluded: “A ‘fat tax’… is a relatively inefficient tool for fighting obesity and will cause a lot of allocative losses for consumers.”
  • In February 2006, a study found that low-fat diets had the same correlation with death rates with those who paid no mind to reducing fat consumption. Epidemiologist Barbara V. Howard told The New York Times: “We are not going to reverse any of the chronic diseases in this country by changing the composition of the diet.”

What’s the bottom line for me? Fat taxes and other taxes on so-called “junk foods” are blunt, unpopular, and ultimately feckless instruments. They would unfairly raise prices and, unlike physical activity, do nothing to fight obesity.

  • Fat taxes hold no cure for obesity. They are just another example of a broad agenda to restrict what Americans eat and drink.
  • All restrictions have unintended consequences. By limiting competition, banning certain restaurants and raising the prices of certain foods will adversely hurt the poorest consumers without properly addressing the other causes of obesity.
  • Fat taxes miss the real obesity culprit: physical inactivity, which has seen a dramatic decline in the last few decades. Even an infamous food cop has lamented that “we’ve engineered the last physical activity out of our life.” Inactivity, even with fat taxes implemented, is still inactivity.
  • A 2010 CBS News poll found that 62 percent of Americans oppose a junk food tax, and 72 percent believe that a tax on junk food would not help people lose weight.