NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Behavioral Effects Of A Fat Tax

May 18, 1998

Some opponents of raising tobacco taxes have used the slippery slope argument: that it will lead to taxing other unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as consumption of fatty foods. A New Republic article discounts that possibility, but says there is an "epidemic of obesity." About one-third of the U.S. population was 20 percent or more overweight under the old guidelines, and under new guidelines 55 percent of adults are deemed overweight.

Yale University professor Kelly Brownell has long advocated a "fat tax." Brownell, director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, says diet-related deaths number 300,000 a year and climbing for food, compared with 500,000 a year and dropping for smoking. He wants the government to subsidize fruits and vegetables and tax foods with more than a certain number of grams of fat.

Experiments show price incentives have a dramatic effect on behavior:

  • Using price incentives instead of a tax, University of Minnesota researchers took a vending machine and reduced the prices of all products containing less than three grams of fat by 50 percent.
  • After three weeks, the percentage of low-fat snacks purchased increased by 80 percent, from 25 percent of total purchases to about 46 percent.
  • At two high schools -- one suburban, one urban -- they discounted salads, bags of carrots and fruits by 50 percent.
  • After three weeks, nobody bought more salads, but sales of carrots doubled in the suburban school and sales of fruit quadrupled in the urban school.

The New Republic admits a fat tax would be regressive because low income people spend more of their income on food and buy more junk food. But it concludes giving up fat is easier than quitting smoking.

Source: Hanna Rosin, "The Fat Tax," New Republic, May 18, 1998.


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