Will A Junk Food Tax Reduce Obesity Rates?

August 7, 2015

We may soon know the answer.

Public health strategies to combat obesity and associated health issues such as Type 2 Diabetes, have centered on awareness and prevention. While there has been a lot of discussion and debate about imposing a junk food tax as part of the fight against increasing obesity rates, there had been little success in establishing such taxes.  However, in 2015 two communities implemented versions of what many refer to as a "junk food tax". The initial test of the taxes will be if they result in reduced consumption of unhealthy food, then does that reduced consumption result in improved health statistics for the area.

“The evidence shows that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes increases in sugar, fat and sodium into the diet and we know that the sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to Type II diabetes and obesity.” - Lisa Powell, Public Health Professor at the University of Illinois

Navajo Nation

According to the Navajo Area Indian Health Service approximately 24,600 Navajo tribe members are affected by obesity and in some areas 60% of residents are afflicted with Type 2 diabetes. To address those health concerns, in November 2014 the Navajo Nation passed the Health Dine Nation Act. The act, which took effect on April 1, 2015, imposes an additional 2% tax on unhealthy foods such as soda, chips, and candy and eliminates the current 5% tax on healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Tribe leaders estimate the tax will could generate up to $3 million dollars a year, which would be used to develop community wellness projects like farmer’s markets, vegetable gardens and greenhouses. Such projects are vitally important in an area referred to as a food desert that spans Arizona and New Mexico to Utah. There are only ten grocery stores located on the reservation, leaving many residents to purchase foods at gas stations, convenience stores and trading posts. More than eighty percent of food sold on the reservations is categorized as "junk food" and is subject to the tax. With 38% residents living at the poverty level, critics of the tax question the ethics of imposing a "junk food" tax on an area where junk food is the primarily available food.

Berkeley, California

Like the Navajo Nation, the impact of America's obesity crisis was evident in Berkeley, California with 40% of 9th graders being affected by overweight or obesity. However, in contrast, Berkeley has a robust availability of food options and many residents with the financial ability to purchase healthier foods. Even their version of a "junk food" tax differs from the Navajo Nation's approach. Berkeley focused on sugary beverages, not all junk food and instead of imposing the tax on consumers, product distributors, those who are profiting for the sales, are taxed. Another difference is, like many California referendums, the Berkeley soda tax or Measure D, was a community based initiative which was approved by voters in November 2014.

Under Measure D, beginning in January 2015, a penny per fluid ounce distribution tax was imposed on sugary drinks such as regular sodas, energy drinks, juice with added sugar, and syrups that go into sugary drinks at cafes. Beverages with nutritional value such as 100% juice and drinks with milk as the first (primary) ingredient are exempt from the tax. In the first month the soda tax brought in $116,000, which goes into the city's general fund. Measure D also calls for the creation of an expert panel to advise and recommend funding for  programs that improve children’s health across Berkeley.

Wait and See

Only time will tell if either the Navajo Nation's or Berkeley's tax approach will reduce obesity rates, however, leaders of both initiatives point to the data available from Mexico City's soda tax. At the start of 2014, Mexico City imposed a one-peso-per-liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and just months later the Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health reported that consumption dropped by 10 percent.

Perhaps imposing a tax is not necessary? It appears awareness campaigns alone are working to reduce soda consumption. A recent report indicated Americans are consuming fewer calories, including drinking less soda. According to industry sales data, in 1998 Americans purchased an average of 40 gallons of full-calorie soda a year. In 2014, the amount was down to 30 gallons.

But the question remains will reduced consumption result in lower rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes? Can we afford to wait years for the answer? In the end, both prevention and awareness might be important  components in the effort to reduce obesity rates, but they are not enough, improved access to treatment for those affected by obesity is vital.

Should junk foods and sugary beverages be taxed? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo credit: dcJohn cc


Ahtone, T. (2015, April 23). The Navajo Nation Just Passed a Junk Food Tax. Too Bad Junk Food is All You Can Buy. The Slice.

Berkeley vs Big Soda. Frequently Asked Questions. (2014).



Sarah (aka Sarahlicious) has been an active member of ObesityHelp since 2003. Her specific areas of interests are Lipedema, Lymphedema, Obesity, and Health Insurance advocacy. Sarah writes about her life experiences at Born2lbFat. She is a member of the Board of Directors of both the Obesity Action Coalition and the Lymphedema Advocacy Group. Sarah has a Masters in Health Law.

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