Tax Policy and the Obesity Epidemic

Article excerpt

I.    INTRODUCTION
II.   THE GROWING PREVALENCE OF THE OBESITY
      PROBLEM IN THE UNITED STATES
III.  CAUSES OF OBESITY AMONG ADULTS AND
      CHILDREN
IV.   THE IMPACT AND COSTS OF OBESITY
V.    JUSTIFICATION FOR GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION
VI.   THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF
      OBESITY TAX
VII.  PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND THE OBESITY TAX
VIII. TAX AS A TOOL IN ADDRESSING THE OBESITY
      EPIDEMIC

   A. Introduction
   B. Current Use of Tax Legislations to Reduce
      Consumption of Unhealthy Food
   C. Current Use of Tax Legislations to Increase
      Physical Activity

IX.   A REVIEW OF THE IMPACT OF TAX LEGISLATIONS
      ON HEALTHY EATING AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
X.    CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

Over the past forty years, the number of obese adults in the U.S. dramatically increased. (1) Similarly, obesity rates among children tripled over the past three decades. (2) The growing obesity problem in the U.S. has been attributed to an increased consumption of nutrient lacking food and beverages and a decline in physical activity. (3) Obesity has significant adverse lifelong health and social consequences. (4) Furthermore, obesity imposes dramatic economic costs, including increased direct health costs for the overweight individual, reduced earning potential, embedded costs borne by employers, increased transportation costs, and increased expenditures by government. (5) The externality of costs borne by society arising out of obesity prompted some to call for the assessment of taxes on unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles to shift the true costs associated to the related behavior back to individuals. (6)

National polls suggest that Americans are generally reluctant to support tax assessment on unhealthy foods and beverages as a policy response to the obesity problem. (7) Recent public opinion polls, however, appear to have shifted noticeably with almost one quarter of the public identifying obesity as one of the top three health problems facing America today. (8) This shift in perception may have convinced more individuals to support the use of narrowly targeted tax assessments to address the issue. (9)

In an attempt to control the medical and social costs borne by society at large incidental to the obesity epidemic, federal and state governments adopted various tax policies aimed at encouraging individuals to engage in more physical exercise and eat healthier. (10) The goal of such tax legislation is to create a climate in which engaging in unhealthy behavior becomes "less desirable, less acceptable, and less accessible." (11) Some of the more commonly adopted government tax policies to address the obesity epidemic include increasing individual consumption of healthy foods through a tax subsidy, imposing taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, and providing tax incentives for individuals to become more physically active. (12)

The goals of this Article are: (1) to present a comprehensive synthesis of legislative efforts throughout the country to address the obesity epidemic through the tax system; (2) to review the body of research on the efficacy of tax legislation to improve eating patterns and active lifestyle; and (3) to identify tax legislative strategies that may offer promising future pathways to address the obesity problem.

This Article begins with a brief summary of the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S. It then explores some of the central contributing factors to the mounting obesity problem among U.S. children and adults. It also examines the adverse impact and costs associated with the obesity problem. Next, this Article discusses the justification for government intervention, as well as the benefits and disadvantages of using the tax system as a way of shaping consumption and physical activity patterns. It then summarizes recent efforts by various levels of government in the U.S. to use the tax system to affect eating and physical activity levels. …