Some people want to tax junk food just as California taxes cigarettes to discourage consumption. Without wishing to defend either trans fats or tobacco I oppose using taxes as a punishment. Taxes should be about raising revenue fairly. A junk food tax, like the cigarette levy, would hurt the poor.
What set me off on junk food was an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times titled, “Bad Food? Tax it and subsidize vegetables.” That article cited the 50-cent per pack surcharge that California voters approved in 1998. Promoted by actor and producer Rob Reiner, the measure had Hollywood support. It promised to use the money raised for early childhood development programs.
How has it worked? A California Department of Public Health report says cigarette use has fallen faster in the state than the nation. That’s good. But it has fallen fastest among the the affluent. Californians lower on the income ladder smoke fewer cigarettes than before but more than their economic betters. And they pay more for their habit. I’m not sure how early childhood development is faring in the state but I do not get the sense that California has become a playground for young kids from families of limited means.
Good nutrition is essential. But the urban poor have more pressing problems than learning the food triangle. Their jobs opportunities are shrinking. Their friends get shot. Working class families are a little better off but those lucky enough to have two incomes face time and cost pressures when it comes to shopping and cooking.
Taxing junk food to decrease consumption would punish the victims of an industry that advertises its products as affordable luxuries. If the products are unhealthy use public policy to force the products to change. When we use tax policy to drive explicit social behavior we hand ammunition to anti-tax zealots who oppose fairer measures like progressive income taxes that support a broad range of public services. It is not up to affluent foodies and Hollywood to tell the poor and working class to eat their veggies or else.