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Study: Junk Food Tax Could Help Slow American Obesity

Have you heard of the so-called “Junk Food Tax”? Some experts believe that taxing unhealthy foods such as potato chips and ding-dongs could actually have a significant impact on America’s current obesity problem. And there’s some scientific evidence to back it up. Let's take a closer look at this potential answer to the rising obesity epidemic.

Which choice is nutritionally worse, a sugar-coated fluorescent pink snowball or a shot of vodka?  A grease-soaked bag of French fries or a single cigarette?  A weird sucrose-laden green soda or a light beer?

Those are some tough questions.  Before you get out your calorie counter to answer the questions on merit, consider the governmental levy of the sin tax.  Cigarettes help raise an enormous amount of taxes, and alcohol gets taxed by so many municipal layers that it is probably the only thing standing between the state of California and its creditors.  A sin tax can do good things, such as dampen consumption, raise revenue for rehabilitation and force consumers to choose more healthy alternatives.

Just in case you have not been paying attention; America has a weight problem. A big one.  And we ought to be looking harder for answers.  The CDC reports some alarming numbers about obesity: as of 2008, the age adjusted prevalence of obesity was 33.8%.  In low-income, pre-school children, 14.6% of our children are obese.  

For more clarification on consumer choices, Leonard Epstein, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo, conducted a study in which he simulated two different grocery shopping scenarios; one in which the cost of junk food was applied at a higher rate (to simulate a sin tax), and another scenario in which the cost of the healthier food was lowered (to simulate a subsidy).   

In the scenario with the subsidy, Epstein remarked that "It appears that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and vegetables and treated the family to less healthy alternatives, such as chips and soda pop." Conversely, when the prices were inflated slightly on the junk food to simulate the sin tax, the shoppers bought a higher percentage of healthy food.

At the end, the study posted these numbers: a simulated 10% sin tax on junk food yielded a 14.4% decrease in the consumption of junk food, and resulted in an overall calorie decrease of 6.5%.  Not a bad start, considering that these sorts of results are only the beginning.  Hopefully, healthier habits would perpetuate themselves and lead to a permanent diet change, and eventually help to combat our American obesity problem.

The sin tax imposed on cigarettes has been moderately successful, and we would do well to start formulating a policy to wean the American public away from soda.  Sin taxes are not the only answer to this problem. Obesity is a complex issue with its tentacles reaching into many parts of our culture. However, sin taxes could help kick start more national awareness, generate some much needed tax revenue, and help fund rehabilitation programs.

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