The Philosophy Behind Junk Food Taxation


The government is supposed to protect us. If people are jumping off a certain bridge, the authorities strengthen the fencing and paint the whole structure a bright color, to discourage suicidal ideation. But when other threats tempt us from the path of health, the government only has the crude tools of prohibition and taxation. Dr. Pretlow says:

Our country has to approach the obesity problem similar to smoking, first banning fast food outlets in hospitals, like cigarette machines were first banned in hospitals, and banning fast food outlets in the vicinity of schools. Recall that, 50 years ago, smoking was the norm and even “cool.” Smoking is now socially unacceptable. Overeating needs to become socially unacceptable.

Certain foods have become like drugs, and our society’s way of dealing with a legal drug is to tax the daylights out of it. Nicotine and alcohol are taxed at the check-out counter. Caffeine isn’t yet taxed by the government, but is taxed in a different way—we pay in oxygen and life, as rain forests are destroyed to make space for coffee bean cultivation.

Some drug-like foodstuffs contain a huge proportion of additives, an unacceptable dose of toxins, or both. People eat stuff that resembles food, things that are edible but not assimilable: things that taste good today, but shorten our lives. Those are the activities of a junkie, and those foods function as drugs, so QED.

People eat stuff that is so far from resembling actual food that when regulation is the issue, it is not quite clear whether the Food and Drug Administration should even be in charge. If the Food wing tried to prosecute, the corporate lawyers would only have to say, “When a department with Food in its name makes the rules over us, then obviously what we produce is food. So, what’s your problem? Go away.” It follows that maybe snacks ought to the regulated by the Drug wing of the FDA.

Using Tax Policy to Reduce Obesity

A Harvard University study said this about taxing sugar-sweetened beverages:

The government can set policies that influence the price and availability of foods that, in turn, influence the risk of obesity. For example, existing small taxes on soft drinks are associated with slightly lower BMI and lower consumption of these beverages. The taxes are related to a greater decrease in consumption and overweight for children who are already overweight or whose families have a low income.

They also figured out that a tax on SSBs of 1 percent per ounce would reduce consumption by 24 percent and, incidentally, raise $80 billion for the government in five years. This could be enough to send every obese child to a residential facility with a good track record, and buy them all smartphones equipped with the W8Loss2Go app pre-installed.

There are some pretty good arguments for putting punitive taxes on junk food, fast food, sugar, and beverages. They damage the health of the people, and consequently drain the national budget. As advocates point out, something has changed the culture’s attitude toward smoking, and fewer people take up the habit these days. Maybe taxation was that agent of change. Whatever it was, anti-obesity warriors want to identify and adopt it. Returning from the ECO 2011 conference in Istabul, Dr. Pretlow wrote:

The best talk I heard was a pediatric pulmonologist who spoke on “Lessons Learned from Tobacco Control: Obesity, the New Tobacco?” She showed amazing copies of documents from the tobacco industry over the past 20 years discrediting evidence of health damage from tobacco use. It is a somber thought that food companies will follow suit in regard to discrediting evidence that their products are causing obesity.

The Nestle’s company representative and a representative of the fast food industry both stood up and argued that there is no evidence that their products are contributing to obesity.

Of course they did.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Toxic Food Environment – How Our Surroundings Influence What We Eat,”, undated
Image by Simon Cunningham

2 Responses

  1. Contrary to the views expressed here, numerous studies indicate that targeting a single source of calories with taxes is overly simplistic and won’t produce substantive results for health. For example, a Yale School of Public Health study concluded that: “any obesity-related benefit of decreased soda consumption that comes from a soda tax is, on average, more than offset by increased caloric consumption from other beverages.” In addition, research published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics ( found that reduced calorie intake from soft drinks would cause an increase in calories consumed from other foods particularly those containing high sodium and fat. These findings, on top of other research and real world examples, show so-called sin taxes won’t help health as many politicians promise.
    -American Beverage Association

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources