Should government use tax policy to improve eating habits?

Some experts suggest that government should use tax policy to influence diet. They’d like higher taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidies to make healthy foods more affordable. Today’s Question: Should government use tax policy to improve eating habits?

  • mollycogdell

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  • J Dre

    Maternal effects: the cold cereal or hormone laden meats our mothers ate as children 30 years ago may be one cause of current obesity. We ought to use the precautionary principle, which is challenging when dealing with panicked end-of-time culture.

    Using tax policy for social change seems absurd to purists… yet the we must use the tools in our toolbelt. So yeah, this is important, give it a try. And be willing to change if proven wrong.

  • Larry M.

    Why not they subsidize many food products, mostly grains, meat and corn, why not make it cheaper to buy veggies and fruits.

    On the other side soda (pop) is the most useless and harmful beverage out there. We should not allow the use of food stamps to buy pop, and probably should “sin” tax it, the sin gluttony.

  • Tax is put on cigarettes and alcohol. Why not sugar content?

  • Steve the Cynic

    A better idea is to stop subsidizing unhealthy food.

  • Alex

    If the government really wants encourage people to eat better, they need to stop subsidizing corn because that makes anything with corn in it which includes anything with corn syrup in it, which is mainly soda and junk food.

  • barracuda

    Short answer: No.

    Slightly longer answer: As others have noted, the government should stop subsidizing unhealthy foods and food-like products.

    Though Webgoddess makes a valid point, I think the focus of additional taxes would have to be more than just sugar content. A lot of fruit is very high in sugar, but discouraging the consumption of fruit is absurd (and kind of silly, since it’s not on the top of anyone’s shopping list these days)*. Perhaps all processed foods would be subject to the tax, or, following Michael Pollan’s suggestion, all foods and food-like products with more than 5 ingredients.

    *hyperbole used for rhetorical purposes; not intended to suggest nobody buys fruit, or that people don’t organize their shopping lists with fruit at the top, since produce is typically the first department you walk into in the grocery store.

  • GaryF

    Less government, not more government.

    Government is not the answer for everything.

  • Yes

  • BruceWMorlan

    It is completely within the principles I see in the libertarian arm of the Republican party to argue that we should not subsidize food, especially food of questionable nutritional value. At the same time, we could argue that people who use government health care (and that is a lot of people), by using that subsidy, have given up the freedom to choose to eat poorly. It would not be impossible to add a “poor choices” tax to selected foods, and it would even be easy to exempt people who are on their own health care plans (just ask for the farming exemption at a farm store sometime to see how smooth the process is for exempting selected sectors). Unfortunately, when we started down the road to subsidized farming (early 1900s) we, as a society, unintentionally, chose Panem et Circenses. We are now reaping, in the fields of the entitlement society, that bitter crop grown from the seeds we have sown.

  • This is why the constitutionality of the healthcare law is so relevant. If the federal government can use the tax code to tell you to buy a specific product (such as healthcare) for the “greater good” why would we expect the federal government to stop there? After all once the federal government controls healthcare they can mandate exercise and healthy foods since it is for the “greater good” and we are all paying for healthcare through the tax code. This will be the road we will go down if the healthcare law is constitutional; I hope many of you Obamacare supporters remember that the rest of us tried to warn you before this bill was passed.

  • Pam

    Yes!!! It is a no brainer. I dont understand why anyone individual would not agree with this. You have discussed price point but there is another issue and that is prep time. People want easy quick to make foods as well to deal with busy schedules etc. We have lost the love and dont see the importance of making healthy home cooked meals and dont see the importance of spending time enjoying eating and conversing with our families or friends.

  • William B

    I like the tax on unhealthy foods to subsidize healthy ones but like other commenters where does this sort of social change by taxes end.

    Why doesn’t government subsidize healthy food and stop subsidizing large businesses with tax breaks?

  • Alan

    These high sugar/HFCS junk foods are a huge contributor to some of the countries largest health problems. The problems they cause are not acute, like those caused by tobacco or alcohol, so the FDA won’t regulate them. Instead they cause chronic health problems that cost tax payers money and the victims their livelihoods. I don’t know if this is the best solution, but doctors currently struggle convincing their patients to eat healthy when the commitment and cost to do so seems so great. I would support this until there is a better plan in place.

  • Mick J

    @ GaryF: No, government isn’t the answer to everything, and nobody’s arguing that. But it is the answer to some things, and I haven’t heard any suggestions from conservatives to reduce rates of obesity and make our country healthier. A healthier country is good for all kinds of reasons, but I suspect the best argument to conservatives is that it saves money and reduces our exploding health care costs. Rather than rail on government and how bad it is, why not come up with some solutions to problems for once? Or better yet, have a nuanced, thoughtful response to one of these questions that doesn’t center on how bad government is?

    @Jefferson: I don’t see that kind of slippery slope. Everyone needs health care at some point. And if an equitable system is going to work where everyone is covered, everyone must be covered. Exercise and healthy eating is a bonus and should be done by everyone to further reduce costs, but the system would not break if everyone had unhealthy habits, so no mandate would ever be necessary, even to the most die-hard liberal. It would break if everyone did not have health insurance. That’s why there’s a mandate, not because “those durn libruls” are taking away freedom.

  • R .McDonald


  • jessica

    I am so confused by this idea. Did anyone else find MPR’s so-called discussion of the idea on Midmorning disingenuous? For example, MPR, how much of our tax dollars are already given to companies to grow the main/number one ingredient in processed foods? Hint: It is way more than we spend on Foodstamps. Wouldn’t it be a bit insightful to bring that up and have it be a main component of the conversation vs. a 30 sec comment from a caller? We have this current crisis of obesity because of a massive lack of information!

    Is it really a “great idea” for the government to give billions to support the main producers of junk food and then tax the low income people who buy it?

    I’m not a Harvard girl (M-State Fergus Falls, MN) but it seems fiscally irresponsible to give our hard earned tax dollars to a few companies to produce the number one ingredients in junk food/pop, and give more money to oil companies to fund the tractors and trucks that ship it to us, and then turn around and disproportionately punish the poor, working poor, low income and middle class who give those companies their business. Why would we do this? So we might throw some chump change at the actual food growers in this country without hurting the profits of corn syrup companies? It’s a shell game, so where is the insight, MPR?

    How was your Midmorning conversation “informative”? How were half of the uneducated callers not used as tools to perpetuate this as a “great idea” while being robbed of the information they needed to consider how assinine it is? How is this regressive “sin” tax good policy? Why would we want yet another entity in our government working in direct opposition of the other in order to punish the middle class while creating billions for the richest companies in the world?

    There is definitely some sinning going on here!

    I would like some answers. Thanks ~ One of your most active participants in Insight Now network ~ Jessica English (formerly Jessica Sundheim)

  • Linda

    I do not believe that there is only one good way to accomplish the goal. If corn were only used for unhealthy additives to food one could justify ending the subsidy. That is simply not the case. Should we tax the unhealthy foods? Perhaps that would be a deterrent. Do we know if that’s working on cigarettes and alcohol? Without taxing the food items, should we increase the price of unhealthy foods? You bet we should! Of course, there will be a need to determine which foods qualify as unhealthy and then decide who will police that. I have watched my family dramatically reduce the amount of soda they drink since those prices have gone up a considerable sum in the past 2 years. We need to do something. It’s obvious that we do not have enough self control to limit ourselves to eating only that which is healthy.

  • Lucy

    @ B’cuda

    I think the webgoddess was refering to processed sugar and products that contain them rather than foods that are naturally sweet

  • Your Mother

    Of course (that and/or something better).

    Taxes wont be needed once the country establishes itself as a major contributor to hemp cultivation. Hemp seed and it’s oil are among the most nutritious things on the planet. Hemp is the most useful plant for nearly every need; industrial, medicinal, recreational and spiritual.

    Become reacquainted with hemp, it’s a key to a happy, healthy future for all of us.

  • Trevor

    We can level the dietary playing field by ending farm bill subsidies for unhealthy proceed foods made from corn and soybeans. If we subsidize production of healthy foods instead, those foods could compete on price.

    Imagine if we paid farmers to grow actual, real, edible food rather than virtually inedible field corn used for cows, cars and candy?

    However, the agribusiness industry will continue to produce highly profitable corn and soybeans either way, and something tells me ye olde Congress isn’t going risk upsetting the agribusiness campaign contribution apple cart.

    So yes, lets address the public health issue in Minnesota with a statewide “health impact fee” (sounds familiar) and invest that money in feeding healthy foods to our kids – perhaps through improved school lunch programs.

  • david

    We can’t stop farm subsidies immediately without adversely affecting the current fragile economy. Like all dramatic government cuts would do if carried out to fast. It would be nice to offset the cost of those subsidies with a tax on what EVERYONE can agree is an unhealthy result of said subsidies.

  • Mark

    No, I think this sort of tax puts an unfair burden on the working poor of this country. Furthermore, who gives anyone the right to tell someone else what they can and cannot consume through tax increases. It’s always easy for a highly paid intellectual to tell the rest of us what is good and bad for us with little cost to themselves.

  • Clark

    How about a fat tax. The fatter you are, the more unhealthy, which costs all taxpayers money via medicaid or medicare. Why not make the over weight user pay their fair share. If you smoke, you pay higher health insurance rates. If you are in mutiple accidents you pay higher auto insurance rates. Perhaps they would then have less money for twinkies and big macs.

  • ToMpls

    I believe there should be a tax or ban placed on producers that use corn syrup in their products. It has now become a game at the grocery store to try and buy foods without it. Doctors and dietitians claim it is a useless product for the body, food manufactures love to use it because it is cheap and generally easier to add to foods than real sugar.

    Why do I want corn syrup in my ground meats??? Raw chicken pumped with sodium products was bad enough, now corn syrup as well???

    Ban corn syrup!!! You’ll find it in every single item you’re likely to tax with the “Twinkie Tax”.

  • Ann

    Government should stay out of it. Companies make what people will buy. Look at the amount of pizza, beer, soda pop, and pastry sold EVERYWHERE. Look at the amount of money people are willing to put into high cost soda pop vending machines.Most people don’t want to eat a lot of healthy food.McDonalds used to sell low fat bran muffins and non fat soft serve yogurt and Mclean low fat burgers. A lot of us loved it. But McDonald’s got rid of it. People didn’t want it. I would like to eat rabbit. It would be better on the environment and cheaper for those of us that are unemployed.People aren’t willing to “think outside the box” and government can’t force them to do so.

  • Michael

    Add a “sin” tax to everything harmful. Grow hemp as Mom says and make this world a better place!

  • Roul

    Of course the government knows best on hos to spend your money and more taxes to add makes sooooooo much sense..just as parts of the stimulus plan was used so well?

    e.g., The City of Seattle received a $20 million dollar “Green Jobs” grant from the Federal government on Earth Day in 2010. In over a year, they have used that money to create a stunning 14 jobs.

    And if you add up the number of new jobs crated with the so called stimulus plan of Obama, we find the cost to be about $240,000 per new job. Three years later and now he is choosing to come out with a Jobs creation plan? Lets hope for change in 2012.

  • Mary

    No not unless the higher taxes are levied on the corporations that produce unhealthy food not on the consumer. Take that higher tax and use it to educate people on healthy eating and subsudise real food, like fruits and vegetables. Many people can’t afford fresh produce so they are forced to eat processed food.

  • jgreg

    Junk food is no different than cigarettes or alcohol. Typically it’s “cheap” per serving unit and very expensive per “nutrient”. As poor dietary habits lead to chronic illness and other more acute health risks – taxes from these behaviors should fund the health services required to remedy their damage.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Here’s something I find interesting about this issue (and not entirely off topic). I remember two or three decades ago when the top nutritional taboo was refined sugar. Health-conscious people looked for sugar on ingredients lists, and tried to avoid it. Then one day I started to notice lots of products proudly advertized as having “less” or “no” refined sugar. It turns out they had found a substance that was just as sweet, and even cheaper, that enabled them to list “sugar” further down the list of ingredients, or even omit it altogether. That substance was high-fructose corn syrup. After a while, though, nutritionists started to raise alarm bells about HFCS, and people wanted to avoid it as well. Now we’re seeing products proudly advertized as having no HFCS, but guess what they’re using instead: refined sugar! The two substances are equally bad, nutritionally speaking, but you wouldn’t know that from the advertizing messages. This is just one example illustrating the fact that you can’t trust anything big corporations tell you. They’re only in it to make money, and the truth is irrelevant to them.

  • mandm58

    Why don’t we let the government control everything we do? Hasn’t anybody ever noticed that funneling money thru any government body ends up with most of the funds being eaten up by administrative costs, so that very little of what the money was intended for for. Yep, lets make government bigger, and then when all the jobs are gone, at least we know we can get one there. Doesn’t anybody want the freedom to make there own decisions anymore? The last time I checked, the grocery stores still sold fruits and veggies, and a whole bunch of other stuff made out of veggies (corn). We are a corn fed nation and are getting more obese because of it. Kind of reminds me of how the foods we eat make us sick, so the pharmaceutical companies can make us better with their pills…

  • roI se

    NO. Taxation on these products is placed on the wrong audience. Consider eliminating the subsidies on the farm products that produce the “fast food” items in question. When the subsidies are eliminated the large corporations will have to decide whether to increase prices or absorb the loss.

    If you tax the products you need adminstrative effots to oversee the taxes — resulting in increase government. If you eliminate the subsidies, you can eliminate some oversight and regulators — resulting indecreased government.

  • Patrick

    No. Let evolution work. Either humans will evolve into giant blimps or billions of humans will vanish.

    Earth would benefit from the latter.

  • freedomveg

    its like this : People should/must start living healthy and simple-Vegan also, but a processed foods vegan, support local organic veggie farmers, shop at coops and farmers markets and if u can not afford join food not bombs who serves free vegan meals, eat more lentills, beans, and potatoes (not fired ones, just steamed potatoes) eat organic apples from local fruit orchards, and most of all GROW UR OWN if u can in any way, in buckets, on the windowsill, on the roof -wherever, but do it, even in ur apprtm. -there are ways, even if u only sprout some sprouts -u need those vitamins, eat a as much as vitamon c from fresh fruits as you can get………stop sugar, HFC, cofee, soy and most of all meat and dairy, or we will all die, bc mother earth can simply not make it

  • freedomveg

    * i meant to say NOT A PROCESSED FOODS VEGAN

  • freedomveg

    I MEANT TO SAY NOT A PROCESSED FOODS VEGAN (those are allmost just as bad)