With the alarming rise in obesity rates among Americans in the past few decades, numerous debates have arisen over how (or if) public policy should be changed to help improve this trend. One promising strategy, already adopted by seven states, has been to try and deter consumers from purchasing unhealthy foods through a tax on soda or sugary drinks and junk food (Lohman, 2002). These taxes address the issue that Americans today are consuming almost 20% more calories than they did in the early 1980’s, and those calories are coming from increasingly less-healthy sources, mainly high-fat and high-sugar processed foods (USDA, 2002). Furthermore, processed foods and drinks are increasingly more affordable than the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains needed to sustain a healthy diet (Marsh, 2011). Assuming that cost is a more pertinent factor of food choice than personal taste, increasing the price of soda and junk food through taxes, while using that revenue to subsidize unprocessed fruits and vegetables would entice consumers to choose healthier products as they become more affordable than their unhealthy counterparts.
There is evidence to suggest that cost, more so than preference, influences purchasing choices. A year after New York increased cigarette taxes from $1.25 to $2.75, smoking rates dropped by 12% to a historic low (Harutyunyan, 2009). Although some might argue that smoking is more of a lifestyle choice than eating, it is rather the choice of what foods to eat which will hopefully be affected in the long run. Additionally, this tax might hurt those in areas with little access to fresh produce and whole grains, such as in low-income urban areas; therefore the “junk food tax” would only work if healthy food choices are made not only affordable but easily available to low-income consumers through the use of subsidies (Marsh, 2011). However, if precautions are taken to ensure equal access to healthy food among all citizens, then using the “carrot” of subsidized healthy food and nutrition education along with the “stick” of a food tax, the typical American diet can-- and should-- be changed for the better.