What do you do with a problem like unhealthy foods? After all, junk food is easily available, it’s cheap, and it’s advertised harder than other kinds of foods. It’s also (usually) delicious. How can you fight that?
Two options are gaining support. In the U.K., the public supports a ban on junk food advertising to children. Specifically, a ban on TV advertising before the 9 p.m. “watershed,” after which U.K. television assumes kids are tucked up in bed, away from a screen, and only consenting, junk-food-loving adults are awake to be marketed to.
The other idea is to tax junk food heavily enough to make it more expensive than healthy food, a gambit already deployed in some countries and cities.
“Junk food is everywhere,” says the U.K. Cancer Research’s director of cancer prevention Alison Cox. “Children are bombarded by advertising tailored to tempt them with pretty colors and cartoons, which all influence the food they prefer.”
According to a survey by Cancer Research, 74% of British respondents supported a ban on junk food TV ads before 9 p.m. The idea behind banning advertising to kids is that bad habits, once learned, stick around for life. “Obese children are more likely to be obese as adults,” says Cancer Research’s head of health information Julie Sharp, “which in turn increases their risks of developing cancer in later life, along with many other health problems.”
But banning ads before 9 p.m. is an easy sell—adults can still see all the glistening fast food ads they like, after they put the kids to bed, and it costs nothing. When the same survey asked whether sugary drinks should be taxed, only 55% supported the plan (with 36% opposed), perhaps mirroring the bigger burden on the consumer’s pocketbook.
The main problem with banning ads is how to classify junk food, but once the junk food lobbyists have been beaten down, the system is simple. Taxing junk foods is more complicated. A paper published at the end of 2015 by the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution investigated the proposal.
Even if we decide to tax junk food, what part exactly do you tax? “Taxing sugary drinks based on their volume,” says the report, “does nothing to encourage businesses to reduce the sugar content of their products.”
One answer is to follow the cigarette or climate-change models, where a specific ingredient (tobacco or CO2) is taxed, but food is more complex. “Obesity, for example, depends not just on the amount of sugar one consumes, but also on metabolic factors that differ across people,” says the report.
Another argument against taxing things such as sugar is that it affects lower-income consumers more than better-off buyers. “For example, a U.S. tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would impose more than four times as much burden, relative to income, on households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution as on those in the top fifth,” says the report. Taxation, then, should be levied alongside education. According to recent research, eating junk isn’t any cheaper than eating well—you just have to know how to buy and prepare healthier foods.
And what about changes in our nutritional knowledge? In recent decades we’ve seen nutritionists recommend diets of mostly carbs, avoiding fat. Now fat is good again, and sugar is bad. What if all fats had been taxed back when carbs were king? Extra-virgin olive oil might still be heavily taxed, awaiting a change in government tax policy. In 2011, Denmark started taxing foods made with saturated fat—butter and potato chips were in, but milk and some yogurts were exempted. Hungary already taxes sugar, salt, caffeine, and some energy drinks. Berkeley, California, taxes foods with added sugar (with some exceptions, including alcoholic beverages).
The potential upsides of taxes are big, though. If applied smartly, taxes might reduce the intake of junk food, with the side effect of making junk food healthier. Food manufacturers won’t let their sales drop because of higher prices. They’ll find ways to make prepared foods with fewer of the bad ingredients. In the case of Hungary, for example, “initial, limited evidence suggests that the tax increased consumer prices of targeted products, reduced their consumption, and inspired some producers to reformulate products to get ingredient levels below the tax thresholds,” says the Tax Policy Center’s report.
Taxation will also generate a lot of extra tax dollars. “A penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would generate almost $10 billion annually in the United States,” says the report. This is similar to the revenue raised by tobacco tax, and could be used to improve education and fund other healthy-eating campaigns, or even to subsidize healthier foods.
The key, then, is a wide-ranging approach, with taxes as just one tool. Combined with things such as better education about healthful cooking, bans on advertising to kids, and creative uses for the extra tax revenue, taxes could shape how we eat and improve our health.