Health & Social Policy

Can We Tax Our Way to Health?

According to the CDC, about one-third of American adults are obese, and obesity-related diseases are becoming a leading cause of death in the United States. Lack of exercise, increased portion sizes and a variety of other factors has led to increasing obesity rates in the United States. It has become one of the largest public health challenges facing the country. There are a variety of options to combat this problem, one of which is a tax on unhealthy food. But what would it look like, and how would it work?

Nearly a month ago, Denmark instituted a national tax on foods with high levels of fat, and other European countries are considering similar options. The tax works like any other, increasing the price in the hopes of driving down the demand. While the tax in Denmark did stir some debate, it generally had broad support among politicians and citizens. The Danish government hopes a tax on unhealthy food will discourage poor eating habits and improve the general health of its citizens. In addition, the tax would generate much needed revenue for governments facing large deficits.
There are many reasons why such a tax was passed in Denmark without much resistance. One of the prime reasons is the idea of the welfare state. Denmark, like lots of other countries in Europe, has a high tax rate, with some citizens in Denmark paying nearly 50 percent of their income in taxes.
However, in return for a high tax rate, Danish citizens are provided with a broad variety of social services. For example, healthcare is universal, job training for the unemployed is robust and effective, and higher education is free for students. Citizens have come to expect that their government will take care of these types of fundamental issues, and as a result are willing to go along with an initiative such as a tax on unhealthy food.
A variety of studies have explored the feasibility and impact of a similar tax in the United States, most likely in the form of a tax on soda. The outcome of such a tax in the United States is unclear. Some studies conclude that a price increase will result in a lower consumption of soda. But it is uncertain how much obesity rates would drop as a result of a soda tax.
Due to a lack of political will and a significant amount of voter opposition, it is unlikely that such a tax would be instated in the United States. Politicians are generally not willing to face the anger of some voters who see the tax as an inappropriate use and overstepping of government power. Also, due to the presence and strength of lobbyists in the American political system, a food tax would face significant opposition in Congress.
A soda tax in the United States is a legitimate idea and would probably result in some health benefits for citizens. But given the variety of challenges in creating such a tax, it is unlikely to be enacted, at least not in the near future. So perhaps there is a need to explore other methods to decrease obesity rates that are more feasible.
However, the fact remains that obesity is a significant problem in the United States. Without widespread educational efforts to promote healthy eating and a coordinated government effort of some type to stop the rising obesity rates, this will continue to be an important and pressing public health problem in the United States.

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