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Q
Fight for a Fat Tax?
What do you know about a proposal for a tax on junk food and sodas? Do you think it is a good idea?
A
Answer (Published 6/22/2006)

The idea for a tax on fast foods, junk foods and soda has been kicking around for a few years, and some states actually have imposed a "fat tax" on certain foods. So has Canada. Essentially, the idea is to discourage people from buying and eating junk food by making those foods more costly. Advocates of this idea suggest that the money raised through a fat tax could be used to promote healthier eating and to encourage exercise. Unfortunately, neither Canada nor the states that tax junk foods (and raise about $1 billion per year as a result), use the money to promote health.

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One of the latest proposals for a fat tax comes from an Indiana state representative who introduced legislation calling for an 11.5 percent tax on junk foods (the proposal defines junk foods as any that lists sugar as the first ingredient, all soft drinks and any other food that is 35 percent or more sugar, by weight). That would leave out high-calorie, high-fat, fast foods that appear to play a major role in the growing obesity epidemic.

I'm not so sure that making junk foods more expensive will have the intended result, which I presume is to encourage people to divert the dollars they spend on junk food to buying fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Some observers have suggested that a fat tax could backfire: people who are accustomed to eating junk foods might just spend more on them.

Some other considerations make the fat tax idea more problematic than it might appear. For example, if your diet is healthy and you have no weight problem, why should you be penalized by a tax for the occasional indulgence in an ice cream cone or serving of chocolate layer cake? And what good would a tax do if junk food manufacturers responded by lowering their prices in order to hold on to their customers?

Finally, a fat tax seems unfair in that it would disproportionately penalize poor people whose consumption of junk foods is highest and would bear the brunt of the additional cost. I'm for anything that might halt and reverse the obesity epidemic and encourage people to give up the high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie foods that appear to be making matters worse, but I'm not convinced that a fat tax is the way to go.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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