Taxing Unhealthy Foods


During a bad economy, people are always looking for ways to cut costs and save money. Saving just a few dollars here and there can add up and help the consumer's bottom line. But sometimes, saving a few dollars by buying the cheaper option might not be the best option in the long run.

In his great New York Times Op-Ed column, "Bad Food? Tax It," Mark Bittman proposes that the government levy a tax on unhealthy foods. By taxing sweetened drinks at 2 cents per ounce, and other unhealthy foods at comparable rates, the government, Bittman argues, could dramatically decrease the consumption of unhealthy foods, decrease the number of lifestyle-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and save the government billions of dollars in health care costs while generating a lot of money to be used to subsidize the production and sale of healthy and natural foods.

The Yale Rudd Center for Food and Public Policy designed a program that estimates that a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York City could generate nearly $500 million in tax revenues in 2013. A national tax levied in all states could generate nearly $19 billion in tax revenues in 2013. This money could be used for all sorts of thing like helping to fight diseases, subsidizing vegetable farming, and creating programs to develop an overall climate of healthy living.

This seems like a great idea with hardly any downside, but it's still going to be difficult to get this kind of bill passed in Congress. Over the past few years, soda taxes have been discussed heavily and some progress has been made. In 1994, Kelly D. Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center, first introduced the idea of a soda tax and by 2009, 33 states had some sales tax on soft drinks, but these rates have been too low to really affect consumption. Back in 2008, then-New York Governor David Paterson proposed a 15% "obesity tax" on non-diet drinks, which was estimated to have been able to generate $404 million a year. But this proposal was eventually defeated and no change was made.

But with so little progress in the past, how can we hope to affect real change in the future? How is this proposal different from what has been discussed in the past? Perhaps with the increased push towards healthier lifestyles and the increased demand for healthier options, a measure like this could potentially happen soon.

In the meantime, you can do your own part to try to eat healthy. There are so many benefits to eating healthy and buying fresh products. If you're able to buy and eat what's in season, you can actually save a lot of money while still eating delicious and fresh produce. Keep an eye out for what foods will affect your waist-line and try to cook with healthier alternatives. But eating healthy doesn't mean you also can't indulge yourself sometimes with a delicious and healthy treat. If you make healthy choices, it's only a matter of time until companies realize consumers demand healthier products and these kinds of taxes will not even be necessary.