Snacks & Candy

Is a 'Junk Food' Tax Coming?

New study suggests a national levy on food and beverage manufacturers could help fight obesity

NEW YORK -- A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests to researchers that an excise tax on the manufacturers of "junk food" would be a legally viable and easy way to affect eating choices. The study examined every scientific paper published on U.S. and international food taxes through May of last year.

The conclusion suggests such a tax wouldn't hit consumers directly at the point of purchase, like a sales tax would. Instead, the higher prices would be placed on manufacters who are likely to pass the cost along to consumers.

"The reason to use excise taxes is the expectation that [manufacturers] will pass on the increased costs by raising prices," said Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at New York University's College of Global Public Health, in an interview with Forbes. "Consumers end up either avoiding the product or replacing it with something different. Or the manufacturers have the option to reformulate and come up with products that will not be taxed."

A national excise tax would be most effective, said Pomeranz and her co-authors, because it would incentivize food manufacturers to change the ingredients in their products. The study defines junk food according to a combination of product category (such as candy, salty snacks, etc.) and nutrients (sugar). Its authors even lobby to make the tax graduated, which means it would go up as the nutritional value of a food went down.

Putting a national tax on junk food on the books in the United States doesn't come without precedence and wouldn't be that difficult to implement, researchers said. For example, the excise tax on alcohol manufacturers based on ingredient levels is a model that is already in place. For wine, the tax increases according to the amount of alcohol in the drink.

Despite that, a national tax on junk food will likely not gain traction right now, especially, Forbes said, with the Trump administration and Republican-led Congress just having passed major tax cuts for businesses. Regardless, Pomeranz said she hopes this is the beginning of an ongoing conversation.

"Politics shifts all the time," she said. "The hope is that at some point a more public-health-friendly administration will come in and continue to support evidence-based policies. As public health advocates and researchers, we believe the fight must continue."

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