Nutrition Action Healthletter
December 2000 — U.S. Edition 
News from CSPI

Michael Jacobson
  Tax Junk Foods

   $1.1 billion. That’s McDonald’s yearly marketing budget. Coca-Cola’s is $866 million. All together, the food industry plunks down more than $33 billion a year encouraging people to buy their products, most of which are loaded with fat, salt, or sugar.

   $1 million. That’s about what the National Cancer Institute spends each year to encourage Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables to reduce their risk of cancer. And that’s far more than is spent encouraging people to eat more whole grains and beans and fewer soft drinks and fatty dairy products and meat.

   Sadly, those budgets reflect the nation’s priorities. The government spends billions on biomedical research to understand diseases and develop treatments for them, but next to nothing to encourage people to eat their way to dramatically lower rates of chronic disease. For all practical purposes, the American diet is determined by market forces, not health concerns.

   Government health departments typically say that they care deeply about nutrition, but just don’t have the money to encourage people to eat better. But they are overlooking one simple and sensible way to fund health campaigns: taxing junk foods.

   Though the food industry pretends that taxing snack foods and soft drinks is an outrageous idea, more than a dozen states —from Maine to California—already levy a small tax on snack foods or soda pop. Collectively, those taxes raise $1 billion a year. Canada also has a national junk-food tax.

   Unfortunately, almost none of the money in either country goes towards promoting health.

   In the June 2000 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Yale University psychology professor Kelly Brownell and I review snack-tax laws. We urge states that have those taxes to dedicate the revenues to promoting healthier eating and increased physical activity. And we urge other states (and cities) to consider adopting those taxes. (go to article)

   As an example of what could be done, consider CSPI ’s 1% Or Less campaigns. Those efforts, mostly using paid television and radio ads, almost doubled the market share of 1% or fat-free milk in seven weeks in two West Virginia communities.

   Similar campaigns could encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, to eat whole-wheat instead of white bread, to drink water or fruit juice instead of soda pop, or to cut back on fatty meat and cheese.

   Snack-tax revenues could never compete dollar-for-dollar with ad budgets. But imagine the impact that $1 billion a year could make in improving the average American’s diet.

   I invite interested state and local officials and activists to contact me for more information.

Michael F. Jacobson
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest


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