By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow
As the obesity rate in Mexico rises, lawmakers have taken action in the form of a tax on sweet drinks and some unhealthy packaged foods. This action in Mexico might ultimately lead to similar laws in the United States and other parts of the world. Similar measures are being passed in many South American counties such as Chile, Ecuador, and Peru all of which are promoting healthier eating through law making. Ecuador even banned industrial food makers from using images of celebrities, cartoons, or animal characters on foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt and Chile banned toys in fast food meals.
The 8% tax on packaged foods and one peso (about 8 cents) per liter tax on sweet drinks was not passed without criticism. Food companies argued that snack food is a staple for the poor and that their companies played a large role as contributors to economic growth. Taxing unhealthy foods raises their cost to competitive monetary levels with their healthier counterparts, causing difficult economic effects on the poorest citizens who may not be able to afford either. Soda and junk food taxes also earn these foods a “forbidden fruit” reputation which could have negative outcomes, especially in children.
California State Senator Bill Monning proposed a one cent per ounce “soda tax” that a University of California, San Francisco study found would save between $320 million and $620 million in medical costs associated with diabetes. San Francisco may also move ahead with its own city wide soda tax of two cents per ounce. It isn’t just California that’s pushing for these taxes either. Telluride, Colorado and New York City are among the many cities that have proposed their own soda tax.
As junk food taxes are becoming an increasingly popular idea we need to keep in mind the best means of implementation. Raising taxes alone addresses one area of the obesity issue. A multifaceted approach that targets junk foods and seeks to make healthy foods more desirable would produce lasting effects. If vegetables and potato chips are similarly priced, we need to make the vegetables are marketed in a way that is more attractive. Focusing on reducing advertising of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt and targeted toward children while simultaneously initiating campaigns promoting healthy eating would a great starting place.