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My Opinion

Will a “Bad Food” Tax Change the Way People Eat?

“What will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits?” Mark Bittman a food columnist for The New York Times asked on Saturday. He recommends taxing bad food and subsidizing good food and although I’d like to agree with this, I think Mark Bittman’s suggestions render his argument trifle, even harebrained.

Bittman suggests making healthy food “more affordable and widely available.” Certainly, this I advocate. After all one of the frustrating — and infuriating — mentalities surrounding eating healthy is that it is only for the wealthy. Unfortunately, Bittman myopically suggests that “drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even school, libraries and other community centers” sell staples for 50 cents a pound. Advocating a move that would “of course, upset the processed food industry.”

It will not upset the processed food industry. It would upset the drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even school, libraries and other community centers due to the nature of these foods; they are highly perishable. One of the secondary reasons people do not buy these foods is that they spoil — quickly.

The primary reason

Human beings buy “bad” food for two reasons: 1) they like it and 2) it is cheap. No tax, penalty, scary statistic, diet study, fat relative who died of heart disease or financial windfall will change this. Bad food makes people “feel” happy — fast. I can say this with conviction as I’ve been there. Taxing soda will do nothing to alleviate this problem. It didn’t do it for smoking and it certainly won’t do it for fatty, sugar-filled foods, which have been proven to contain addictive, satiety-inducing attributes. These are studies that do more to changing the industry than “research on beverage taxes from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.”

Just as taxing cigarettes did not curb smoking, posting horrific photos of what happens to you when you smoke will not change the elation people supposedly experience when they smoke a cigarette. It is a disgusting habit that people CHOSE TO LEARN. Just the same, eating bad food is a choice. We form habits based on repetition surrounding convenience and comfort.

So, Mr. Bittman, no, it is not harder for people to buy fruit than it is to buy Fruit Loops. An apple costs fifty nine cents at Trader Joe’s. Fruit Loops cost more than fifty nine cents.

Campaigns that align healthy eating with fun — at a young age — will go much further than any tax or subsidy ever could. Habits are formed early. Just as I was influenced by a frighteningly, over zealous, red-headed clown and his hamburger stealing cohorts as a child, I could’ve been influenced by healthy characters.

The only industry that any type of tax policy, be it excise or sales, would have an affect on would be the manufacturers of the so-called bad food; the Coca Cola Company makes Dasani Water. Pepsi owns Tropicana. It will level itself out. A tax will only change the strategy of how Coke and Pepsi is marketed.

I am happy that Mark Bittman advocates changing the industry. And yes, the rate of diabetes is soaring just as health care bills are “on the verge of becoming truly insurmountable,” but a mindset is what needs to be changed — across the board. Has Mr. Bittman seen what hospital vending machines sell? How ironic is it that they very places people go to, to cure a disease they got from eating bad food, serves and sells bad food?

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  • The real problem with targeted taxes is that it really is impossible to only target one group. There ends up being collateral damage. Taxes are evil anyway. :)

    Tim Swanson

    9:36 am

  • It might help. I think anything will help. Maybe it will make people realize that the food they are buying isn’t really good for them


    11:44 pm

  • A tax will curb poor food consumption just as it has for cigarette.

    G. Spher

    5:59 pm

  • People need to be educated about what they eat. Taxing will only hurt the poor and middle class who mostly buy fast food. Broccoli and whole grain bread will not be a go to choice for poor people. They have no incentive to buy healthy food.

    Rich Sobel

    4:19 pm

  • If taxing bad food occurred, it would save consumers a whole lot of money and the world would probably be a much healthier place. And for those who want to improve and maintain their health & well being, it would be a lot easier if they would chop down the prices on organic food. :D


    8:22 pm

  • One of the problems is eating healthy costs MORE (in time, money and thought). One may feed a family a two-month old box of Kraft macaroni and cheese in 5 minutes for $2 or take the time (and at least $5) once or twice a week to think of and buy the ingredients for and prepare a salad. With 44 million Americans on food stamps (and the limited amount of funds budgeted for a so-called healthy diet thereon), I don’t think this will change any time soon.


    10:52 pm

  • What do you think? Will a “Bad Food” Tax Change the Way People Eat?:

  • Trying to get people to eat healthy by imposing a tax is dumb. It didn’t work for cigarettes, it won’t work for soda and it doesn’t work for alcohol.


    1:35 pm

  • I have to tell you that I totally agree with your assessment of “taxing” food. What makes Mr. Bittman think it will work? Is there some history that conveys that? You are dead on right when you say that starting healthy eating at a young age will do so much more for healthy food habits that trying to “tax” people to eat healthy. It is working and changing the mindset that really needs to happen.


    12:54 am

  • Wait-you’re kidding? “… the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods.” Umm…hello McFly-they HAVE been-even McDonald’s! Stefan is correct, NOTHING will change unless the person’s mind set does! And please, “That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.” Don’t we have enough government as it is? Please keep Uncle Sam off my plate too! I agree that children need to be taught young. Maybe one way is to use sports-many kids revere sports figures. Why not teach them that those athletes didn’t achieve their goals & reach their successes by making poor choices? Need to employ the “GIGO” computing principle here – “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. Good results arise from positive choices; there are so many teachable moments in childhood. As for adults…well, maybe reinforcing the prevention construct; it will cost them far more in the long run to overcome an illness than to prevent it in the first place. Cost meaning more than $$$ – time & energy are just as valuable.


    10:22 pm

  • It goes back to the old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do”. Parents must teach their children healthy eating habits. No tax or advertisement will take their place.


    9:15 pm

  • No "Good Food" subsidies will! “@mayhemstudios: RT @stefanpinto: Will a “Bad Food” Tax Change the Way People Eat?:”

    Josh Miley (@willdrink4food)

    6:28 pm

  • “Sin Taxes” don’t discourage the behavior. The reason alcohol and tobacco and now sugar are extra-taxable is because people will pay more for something once they are addicted to it. Only by changing your mindset can you change the way you eat.

    Anthony Pascale

    5:16 pm

  • Interesting perspective, Stefan. Eating healthy is a choice and a habit and just like everything else (think electronics) when more people get into the habit of buying healthy foods the prices of those foods will most likely go down. I think the other big factor is convenience, though. Obtaining crappy food especially when you’re on the run is easier than tracking down healthy choices. I’m a healthy eater who travels a lot and this is a frustration for me. I usually pack my own snacks to avoid not having healthy options.
    Great article, as usual. Thank you!

    Wendi Darlin

    5:00 pm

  • It doesn’t keep people from smoking so why would it stop people from eating bad food. Eating healthy has to be your own choice just like quitting smoking. My husband has smoked on and off for years but until he is ready to quit nothing I say will make him stop.

    Beth Crum

    4:18 pm

  • I don’t think a tax on “bad food” will do anything to help curb the epidemic in today’s society. I also don’t agree that regulating a basic right like EATING does anything to promote a cause…how about incentives…like REWARDING corporations that have healthy eating habits incorporated into their companies meal plans and vending machines. Or salary incentives given by employers for encouraging some of their high risk employees to make better choices in their lives. And at schools…developing programs that educate and reward children from an early age to eat well and stay healthy? Punishment in the form of shame…or taxation or peer pressure had NEVER worked with people…we are human beings with free will, and want to PARTICIPATE in a process not be scolded and told what to eat like naughty school children.


    4:14 pm

  • I agree with your points. A tax is a white collar solution to a blue collar middle class problem. Raising prices with an added tax only harms those it is meant to help. What we need is education, but how will that happen if taxes get passed by same people who cut education?

    Michael H

    3:47 pm

  • I agree with most of the comments here! Taxing bad food will not prevent those who are eating it to stop. They may just buy CHEAPER bad food, which is worse! And they would complain about it, but may not switch to healthier foods due to the habit of EATING the bad foods in the first place. Many good points here! I don’t think it’s the ‘way’ to get people to eat healthier. Education and a better understanding about buying and eating healthy food is the best way!

    Lynn Higgin

    3:00 pm

  • No. I think it will just make it harder for people to feed their families. Yes, we want to give ourselves and our loved ones healthier foods, but truthfully, it’s like any other life change. No one is going to change until they are ready, until they decide that’s what they want.

    Saranna DeWylde

    2:54 pm

  • I love your points. Taxing bad food won’t change bad habits. People need to eat. If all you eat is junk food and drink soda a tax won’t magically persuade you to eat good food. The cigarette example is a perfect one.

    Amy Segel

    2:46 pm

  • I agree with you. A tax won’t stop anyone from buying bad food. They’ll just complain about it.

    Simone Cruz

    2:35 pm

  • The whole point of a tax is to make cost of food inconvenient. But hunger cannot be ever inconvenient. People pay higher prices for the same food when they are traveling through airports and highway rest stops.

    Rich Sobel

    2:20 pm

  • I love your take on this issue. I agree. We need to focus on better campaigns to reach our children and to help families make the right choice. I can buy a bag of apples for under $5 or a bag of chips for the same price. The kids will eat what parents buy. Then when they become adults they will continue to buy them. Because it became a habit. I have learned that eating healthy is also not an inconvenience. It is just as easy to buy that bag of apples vs that bag of chips. :) Great job Stefan!

    Gena Morris

    2:15 pm

  • Good points, Stefan. I think a food tax might help, but it won’t solve the problem. Don’t you think that the people who live on junk food as their staple would end up suffering?

    Rona E

    2:07 pm

  • Why I Disagree with New York Times Columnist Mark Bittman on Taxing Bad Food: “What will it take to get A… Pls RT

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