March 2, 2015

Junk Food Taxes Don't Work

Michael D. Thomas

Assistant Professor of Economics, Creighton University
Summary

Taxing junk food not only doesn't work, but also directs attention away from useful solutions to the problem of unhealthy eating. The solution to large-scale public health issues in the United States is not simple, but we need to understand why those in poverty are making unhealthy choices. Policymakers must switch from a regulation mentality to an empowering mentality. Only after finding ways to integrate good choices into the daily lives of our fellow citizens can we see lasting change.

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What if I told you there was an easy way to fix various health problems that had a variety of benefits and very little cost? Your first reaction could be "let’s do it." This is the promise that comes with taxing items to change consumer behavior. But, after many years of failed policy attempts, you should be a bit more skeptical of this approach.

In a new research paper to be published tomorrow by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University on “Regressive Effects: Causes and Consequences of Selective Consumption Taxation,” my colleagues and I explore the taxation of junk food in more detail. So many other people were talking about the health effects of bad diet that we wanted to know more about how to stop the high rates of heart disease, diabetes and other health concerns that come from eating foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

What we found is that many people live in areas where little else besides this type of food is available, areas called food deserts – or what the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” On top of this, salt and sugar are the most popular preservatives. That means food can wait around until you get ready to eat it, unlike a banana or an apple slice. Convenience is an important aspect of food purchases. It’s no wonder so many people make the choice to buy cheap, convenient food that might ultimately make them subject to chronic health problems.

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