Junk Food: Will Higher Taxes Break Our Addiction?

We hope you’ve enjoyed the "food for thought” from Slidell Memorial’s recent blog entries. From guilt-free Cajun cooking to holiday food for diabetics, we’ll continue the theme with something that may prove a tad more controversial. It’s a question that has cropped up in recent headlines, and we’re curious what the Slidell community thinks:

Should we have a tax on junk food and fast food?

It’s not such a crazy idea—or at least not an unheard of one. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously waged war on the "Big Gulp” by supporting campaigns to impose additional taxes on sugary sodas (or to ban them outright if they were larger than 16 ounces). Even though a state court overturned Bloomberg’s ban, other cities and countries have imposed such restrictions, and they remain in place.

But would it work here, in south Louisiana? Let’s take a look.

Greasy Food Addiction?

The ugly truth is junk food is just as addictive as street drugs. Here’s why. It turns out, addiction to drugs and alcohol has its roots in brain chemistry. Dopamine is that "feel good” neurotransmitter that our brains produce. When our cavemen ancestors bit into a fat, greasy hunk of woolly mammoth (or whatever), their brains released a dopamine shot to reward them for scoring such an awesome source of energy—energy the cave-dwellers needed to hunt another day.

The foods we eat actually influence the ways the chemical receptors in our brains work. Our brains are still telling us "good job” every time we bite into salty, greasy goodness. But sugar, fat and processed foods aren’t hard-to-find sources of much-needed energy anymore. They’re everywhere, they’re cheap, and we’re eating FAR too much of them. Our brains haven’t gotten the memo.

But is it fair to compare a Big Mac to illegal drugs? Consider this: Baby rats who were given a high-fat diet were more likely to crave amphetamines when they got older. Unhealthy food gave the rats a "shortcut” to happiness, so even when they grew up to be adult rats (presumably with families, jobs and other adult rat responsibilities), they still jumped at the chance at an "easy fix” when given the opportunity to binge on highly-additive uppers.

What about non-rat, human kids? There’s no doubt childhood eating habits can shape the way we eat for the rest of our lives. If eating fatty foods and taking speed have similar effects on our brains, how can we expect children – much less adults – to stand a chance?

Is Government the Answer?

Researchers from New York University and Tufts are making a bold claim. They think a "junk food tax” could have a huge—and beneficial—effect on public health. Their article in the American Journal of Public Healthstates that healthier diet choices mean discouraging people from eating burgers, soda, and potato chips, and financial incentives might be the best way to accomplish this.

According to the report in Vox:

Instead of a sales tax that would show up at the point of purchase, the researchers argue for an excise tax on junk food manufacturers. That should increase the shelf price of junk foods and beverages, and deter consumers from bringing unhealthy food choices to the checkout counter in the first place.

Americans love freedom of choice, so it’s hard to imagine some of us giving up our Twinkies and frappuccinos without a fight. But the proposal (crazy as it may sound) isn’t about taking away our right to choose what we eat. It’s about making bad decisions hurt a little. And what hurts more than paying a lot of money for something?

Chew on this: Since 1970, federal taxes on cigarettes have driven prices higher and higher. And here’s what happened:

Courtesy of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

"Raising the tobacco tax is probably the single most effective way to reduce smoking, especially among kids," according to Vincent Willmore with the Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says adult smoking in America also dropped 21 percent from 2005 to 2015.

As mentioned, other countries have taxed fast food and junk food. Hungary and Mexico have taxes on certain "non-essential” foods and drinks, for example. How has it worked for them? In Mexico, the penalty resulted in 5-7 percent fewer purchases of "snacks, sweets, nut butters and cereal-based prepared products.” Hungary saw a 5-16 percent drop in purchases of "soft drinks, candy, salty snacks, condiments, and fruit jams.”

Even if it Happens, More Is Needed

If a junk food tax ever sees the light of day, it’s a safe bet it will have the desired effect (decreasing obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases) only if it’s implemented in conjunction with public education programs and other measures. Getting rid of soda machines in schools, subsidizing healthier food choices and improving nutritional guidelines for school lunch programs are all pieces of the puzzle. But as long as lousy food choices remain so inexpensive and attractive (not to mention tasty), we’re probably going to keep seeing the inevitable consequences on our health and our healthcare.

Slidell Memorial Hospital offers one-on-one nutrition counseling and group programs. Our medical nutrition programs provide solutions and strategies customized just for you. If you’re committed to losing weight and learning better eating habits, click here to learn about our Nutrition Wellness Programs.

Slidell Memorial is "Your Hospital for Life.” We are a 229-bed acute care community hospital in the heart of Slidell, Louisiana. We give you access to the latest treatments, technology and expertise. Services include the emergency room, cardiac care, cancer center, orthopedic specialists and outpatient rehabilitation. We are a member of the Ochsner Health System.