Should There Be a Tax on Unhealthy Foods?

The concept of a "fat tax" isn't a new idea. In fact, an increasing number of countries have introduced taxes on unhealthy food and drinks. But do these taxes actually work at getting people to make healthier decisions—and are they fair? Those are the questions many are asking after a recent report from the British Medical Journal website found that taxes on unhealthy food and drinks would need to be at least 20 percent to have a significant effect on diet-related conditions such as obesity and heart disease.

There are pros and cons to the so-called fat tax, says Pat Baird, registered dietitian in Greenwich, Conn. 

"Some people believe the added cost will deter consumers to give up foods that high in fat, sugar, and sodium," she says. "My professional and personal opinion is that, in the long run, they will have little or no effect. The problem with them is the assumption that these taxes will solve obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. They penalize everyone—even if they are healthy and of normal weight."

Unlike cigarettes, which have been linked to at least seven types of cancer, nutrition is a little more complicated, she says. 

"The issue with food is the amount that people consume coupled with the lack of physical activity that is harmful," Baird says. "Excess calories are stored as fat. This is the cause of obesity. That is the risk factor that contributes to chronic disease."

According to the study, about 37 percent to 72 percent of the U.S. population support a tax on sugary drinks, particularly when the health benefits of the tax are emphasized. Modeling studies predict a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks would reduce obesity levels by 3.5 percent in the U.S. The food industry believes that these types of taxes would be ineffective, unfair, and damage the industry, leading to lost jobs. 

If implemented, Baird doesn't believe that a tax would really encourage people to eat healthier because survey after survey confirms that taste and personal preference is the No. 1 factor for food choices. Instead, she urges that education and motivation—not punishment—is the key to making better food choices.

"Demonizing food, penalizing people for food choices just doesn't work," she says. "What science shows is that all foods can be part of a healthy diet; and fewer calories with increased physical activity reduce weight. Providing better academic and nutrition education are documented ways of helping people achieve a more productive and healthier way of life."

What are your thoughts on the fat tax? Are you in favor of it or do you oppose it? Let us know in the comments below!

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