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PH2009063001041.jpgTom Laskawy isn't convinced by the RAND study showing that a modest tax on calories isn't likely to do much to curb the obesity crisis (or, I presume, the other studies with similar results that are mentioned elsewhere in the paper). But the most compelling of his objections is simple enough: Perhaps a modest tax is, well, too modest. "Maybe it's true that a 10% tax isn't enough," he writes. "Ten cents on a dollar bag of chips doesn't strike me as quite the policy innovation we're looking for."

It's true, of course, that you could eventually jack taxes high enough that many foods would become unaffordable and consumption would plummet. (This is sort of what we've done with our tariff on Brazilian sugar cane.) But I think it unlikely that you'll get there. Hell, I think it unlikely that you'll get to 10 cents on much beyond soda. Which makes me wonder if junk food taxes are the most productive policy for public health advocates to focus on. I worry that this is one of those cases where when all the government has is the tax code, every problem starts to look like an unpriced externality.

But every problem isn't an unpriced externality. What we eat is, as the wonks say, a multidimensional decision. It's not just price. It's culture. It's advertising. It's preference. It's convenience. It's location. It's social norms. It's the taste for salt and sugar and fat and excess that was hardwired into our mental circuitry thousands of years ago.

I'm not against junk food taxes. But my hunch is that they'll prove a lot better for raising revenue than blunting the obesity crisis. Food is too personal for the government to mount effective interventions, particularly on the consumer side of things. Changing our eating habits will, I think, end up being more a matter of behavioral economics than economics. It'll be about changing the choices we make more than the choices we are financially able to make. For that reason, I'm actually much more interested in calorie labeling efforts than I am in junk food taxes. But now I'm getting ahead of a coming article ...

Photo credit: Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 8, 2009; 8:01 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Next: Making Calories More Expensive Versus Making Some Calories More Expensive


Well you can use a junk food tax to pay for an awareness campaign, like with tobacco.

Posted by: JonWa | July 8, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

i dont really know anything about how a tax will affect the obesity crisis, but i am sure that the psychological deprivations and anxieties of a bad economy will cause more obesity and related issues.
the more nervous, stressed and deprived people feel, the more they will resort to the inexpensive, sweet and salty munchy comforts that give them simple pleasures and momentary relief from their concerns.

Posted by: jkaren | July 8, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

calorie labelling

hershey bars - invented in 1900
mounds bars - invented in 1921
milky ways - invented in 1923
cheetos - invented in 1948

these products all have calorie labels, but they are still singing their siren songs to customers, on the checkout line and seem to be thriving in their longevity!
..hershey's chocolate kisses just had their 102nd birthday on july first!

Posted by: jkaren | July 8, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

But compared to what you get in restaurants, the 180 calorie Hershey bar is damn near healthful...

Posted by: Ezra Klein | July 8, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

just love those flavanol antioxidants!!!

Posted by: jkaren | July 8, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I get frustrated by the selection. At my local convenience store, I can find a thousand different kinds of sugared and fake-sugared drinks, but nothing that's naturally sugar free, like unsweet iced tea. Even the "diet" green tea has fake sugar in it. Ugh.

Posted by: MikeT5 | July 8, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse


a bottle of water and a fresh lemon or a lime?

Posted by: jkaren | July 8, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse


Kisses are a rip-off of Wilbur Buds, which are head and shoulders a better chocolate, FYI.

And yeah, I'm so-so on the taxing. I think addressing subsidies might be closer to the answer, maybe combined w/shaking up school lunch and food stamps to making them less about selling surplus and more about, you know, health.

Posted by: ThomasEN | July 8, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Here are some other thoughts on this subject, more food for thought (pun intended):

"Poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle do cause health problems, in people of all sizes. This is why it’s so...crucial to separate the concept of “obesity” from “eating crap and not exercising.” The two are simply not synonymous — not even close — and it’s not only incredibly offensive but dangerous for thin people to keep pretending that they are. There are thin people who eat crap and don’t exercise — and are thus putting their health at risk — and there are fat people who treat their bodies very well but remain fat. Really truly.

What’s more, those groups do not represent anomalies; no one has proven that fat people generally eat more or exercise less than thin people. Period. And believe me, they’ve tried. (Gina Kolata’s book, Rethinking Thin, is an outstanding source for more on that point.)"

-Kate Harding

So, perhaps putting taxes on high-calorie junk food would be helpful in getting fat and thin people alike, from eating unhealthy foods. Maybe not. But it's probably not really gonna do much for obesity in general.

Posted by: silentbeep | July 8, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

And for MikeT5:

You can just as easily get iced tea at Starbucks, and ask for it unsweetened :)

Posted by: silentbeep | July 8, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm inclined to tax things like junk food, alcohol, and tobacco to pay for health care reform. People spend their lives consuming this stuff and then society pays a ton of money to treat their related health costs. It's not politically viable to ban these things, so why not just try to create incentives to abandon them? We tax the crap and subsidize healthy alternatives. Put the onus on the companies making the crap to provide adequate health warnings (on packaging and advertising), and begin requiring nutritional instruction early on in elementary school.

I understand that these taxes will fall disproportionately (at least relative to a percentage of income) on the poor, but hopefully some of this can be alleviated by the subsidization of healthy alternatives. In any case, just think of the taxes as part of their health insurance. If the public is paying a large chunk of their health care costs and they decide to consume stuff that will cause health problems, I don't see any problem with them paying a little extra for that stuff to defray the cost of their future health care.

Posted by: johnclevenger | July 8, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse


that was a very good post.

Posted by: jkaren | July 8, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

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