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A fat tax is a tax or surcharge that is placed upon fattening foods, beverages or individuals.[1] As an example of Pigovian taxation, a fat tax aims to discourage unhealthy diets and offset the economic costs of obesity.



A fat tax aims to decrease the consumption of foods that are linked to obesity. Numerous studies suggest that as the price of a food increases, consumption of that food decreases.[2][3][4] In fact, eating behavior may be more responsive to price increases than to nutritional education.[5] Estimates suggest that a 1 cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages may reduce the consumption of those beverages by 25%.[6] However, there is also evidence that obese individuals are less responsive to changes in the price of food than normal-weight individuals.[7]

To implement a fat tax, it is necessary to specify which food and beverage products will be targeted. This must be done with care, because a carelessly chosen food tax can have surprising and perverse effects.[8] For instance, consumption patterns suggest that taxing saturated fat would induce consumers to increase their salt intake, thereby putting themselves at greater risk for cardiovascular death.[8] Current proposals frequently single out sugar-sweetened drinks as a target for taxation.[9][10] Cross-sectional, prospective, and experimental studies have found an association between obesity and the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.[11][12] However, experimental studies have not always found an association, and the size of the effect can be very modest.[13]

Since the poor spend a greater proportion of their income on food, a fat tax is regressive. To make a fat tax less burdensome for the poor, proponents recommend earmarking the revenues to subsidize healthy foods and health education.[10] Additionally, proponents have argued that the fat tax is less regressive to the extent that it lowers medical expenditures and expenditures on the targeted foods among the poor.[6] Indeed, there is a higher incidence of diet-related illnesses among the poor than in the general population.[citation needed]

The tax would not limit consumer choice; it would change relative prices.


As early as 1942, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. physiologist A. J. Carlson suggested levying a fee on each pound of overweight, both to counter an "injurious luxury" and to make more food available for the war effort.[14] The concept was reintroduced by Milton Merryweather and P. Franklin Alexander in the late seventies, but pioneered and brought to prominence in the early 1980s by Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. Brownell proposed that revenue from junk-food taxes be used to subsidize more healthful foods and fund nutrition campaigns.

In a 1994 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Brownell noted that food costs were out of balance, with healthy foods costing more than unhealthy ones.[15] The New York Times Op-Ed piece that proposed the "fat tax" elicited controversy and outrage nationwide. Author Kelly Brownell became the focal point of this controversy, especially from Rush Limbaugh, who spoke out adamantly against the tax and the general principle of governmental intrusion into food choices and a possible invasion of privacy. Brownell’s proposal was listed as number seven on the list of U.S. News & World Report's "16 Smart Ideas to Fix the World." Because of this and other work, Brownell was named by Time Magazine as one of the "World's Most Influential People."

In subsequent years it has become clear that agriculture subsidies contribute to this problem by favoring calorie-dense foods and neglecting fruits and vegetables. Making healthy foods cost less could be a major tool in improving nutrition.

In December 2003, The World Health Organization proposed that nations consider taxing junk foods to encourage people to make healthier food choices[16]. According to the WHO report, "Several countries use fiscal measures to promote availability of and access to certain foods; others use taxes to increase or decrease consumption of food; and some use public funds and subsidies to promote access among poor communities to recreational and sporting facilities."

Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said his nonprofit nutrition advocacy organization welcomed the recommendations and has spent years fighting for measures like a Junk Food Tax. The proposal got even more traction when New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz proposed taxes on junk food and entertainment contributing to sedentary lifestyles to fund nutrition and exercise programs.

Other advocates of the tax point to the effect taxes have had on alcohol and tobacco use. Five studies published between 1981 and 1998 found that drinking declined as the price of alcohol increased. The same holds for tobacco. In California in 1988, Proposition 99 increased the state tax by 25 cents per cigarette pack and allocated a minimum of 20% of revenue to fund anti-tobacco education. From 1988 to 1993, the state saw tobacco use decline by 27%, three times better than the U.S. average.

Japan implemented a measurement of waist sizes during 2008 to help avoid the obesity epidemic confronting the United States. The New York Times wrote: "To reach its goals of shrinking the overweight population by 10 percent over the next four years and 25 percent over the next seven years, the government will impose financial penalties on companies and local governments that fail to meet specific targets. The country’s Ministry of Health argues that the campaign will keep the spread of diseases like diabetes and strokes in check." The average male waist size in Japan is smaller than the average in the U.S.[17]

A CBS News poll from January 2010 reported that a tax on items such as soft drinks and foods considered to be junk food, is opposed 60% to 38%. An even larger number, 72% of Americans, also believed that a tax would not actually help people lose weight.[18] While a February 2010 poll by Quinnipiac University found that New York residents overwhelmingly favor a soft drink tax, with 76 percent wanting the tax, and 22 percent opposing it. The poll found both Republicans and Democrats favor the tax.[19]

Scientific Research

Taxing soda and pizza can decrease the amount of calories that people consume from these foods, according to a scientific study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in March 2010. The study found that a 10 percent tax on soda led to a 7 percent reduction in calories from soft drinks, and a 10 percent tax on pizza led to a 12 percent reduction in calories from soft drinks. These researchers believe that an 18 percent tax on these foods could cut daily intake by 56 calories per person, resulting in a weight loss of 5 pounds (2 kg) per person per year. The study followed 5,115 young adults ages 18 to 30 from 1985 to 2006.[20][21]

See also


  1. ^ WSJ-Japan Fat Tax
  2. ^ French, S.A. (2003), "Pricing effects on food choices", Journal of Nutrition 133(3): 841–843, 
  3. ^ Cinciripini, P.M. (1984), "Changing food selections in a public cafeteria: an applied behavior analysis", Behavioral Modification 8: 520–539 
  4. ^ Epstein, L.H.; Handley, E.A.; Dearing, K.K.; et al. (2006), "Purchases of food in youth: influence of price and income", Psychological Science 17: 82–89 
  5. ^ Horgen, K.B.; Brownell, K.D. (2002), "Comparison of price change and health message interventions in promoting healthy food choices", Health Psychology 21: 505–512 
  6. ^ a b Brownell, Kelly D.; Farley, Thomas, "The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages", Health Policy Report of The New England Journal of Medicine, 
  7. ^ Epstein, L.H.; Dearing, K.K.; Paluch, R.A.; Roemmich, J.N.; Cho, D. (2007), "Price and maternal obesity influence purchasing of low- and high-energy-dense foods.", American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 86 (4): 914–922 
  8. ^ a b Mytton, O; Gray, A; Rayner, M; Rutter, H (2007), "Could targeted food taxes improve health?", Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61: 689–694, doi:10.1136/jech.2006.047746, 
  9. ^ Chan, Sewell (16 December 2008). "A Tax on Many Soft Drinks Sets Off a Spirited Debate". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ a b Brownell, Kelly D.; Frieden, Thomas R. (2009), "Ounces of Prevention — The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages", New England Journal of Medicine, 
  11. ^ Malik, V.S.; Schulze, M.B.; Hu, F.B. (2006), "Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review", American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 84 (2), 
  12. ^ Vartanian, L.R.; Schwartz, M.B.; Brownell, K.D. (2007), "Effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition and health: a systematic review and meta-analysis", American Journal of Public Health 97 (4): 667–675, 
  13. ^ "More support for a junk-food tax". Los Angeles Times. September 2, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  14. ^ Engber, Daniel (September 21, 2009). "Let Them Drink Water! What a fat tax really means for America.". Slate. Retrieved 2009-09-22. 
  15. ^ Brownell, Kelly (15 December 1994). "Get slim with higher taxes". The New York Times. 
  16. ^ Srikameswaran, Anita (6 December 2003). "World Health Organization wants 'Twinkie tax' to discourage junk foods". Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Retrieved 13 September 2009. 
  17. ^ Japan, Seeking Trim Waists, Measures Millions-June 2008
  18. ^ Montopoli, Brian (January 7, 2010). "Poll: Most Oppose Tax on Junk Food". CBS News. Retrieved January 9, 2010. 
  19. ^ New York 1 News, Poll Shows Voters Sweeten To Idea Of Sugary Drink Tax,
  20. ^ Reuters, tax soda, pizza to cut obesity researchers say, March 8 2010,
  21. ^ Archives of Internal Medicine news release, March 8 2010,

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