Would It Work Here? A Tax on Unhealthy Food

By Stephanie Rubesh November 23, 2011 Published in the December 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Photo: Lofoto/Shutterstock

DENMARK’S PASTRY DEVOTEES HAD A rough morning on October 1, when their favorite buttery foodstuffs fell prey to Europe’s first-ever tax on fatty fare. The levy sets consumers back 16 kroners per kilo of saturated fat (or $2.95 per 2.2 pounds) for any food with more than 2.3 percent fat. The Danes have obesity and cardiovascular disease to blame; roughly 10 percent of the population heaves a wide load.

Only 10 percent? America’s obesity rate weighs in at 33.8 percent. In Washington State 62 percent of adults are either overweight or obese. And some think it’s time we slapped our own tax on unhealthy food.

State senator Ed Murray cast one of the 25 votes that pushed Senate Bill 6143 through in April 2010, placing a state tax—of variable percentages—on candy, soda, beer, canned meats, and (somewhat inexplicably) bottled water. “We are in an economic crisis,” Murray says, “and these were reasonable to tax in an effort to preserve some of those things that the state provides, such as health care.”

The Washington Food Industry Association didn’t like that. Association president Jan Gee cites research that shows taxes don’t effectively change behavior: “Consumers cut back at the beginning and then forget about it.” Gee helped pitch Initiative 1107, a ballot measure designed to kill Murray’s senate bill. Fueled by food industry contributions totaling $16 million—at the time the most spent on any measure in state history—I-1107 passed in November 2010. “We’re an independent society,” explains Gee. “We don’t want to be told what to eat, how to eat, and what to pay for it.”

A closer look at voting results tells a different story. Fifty-three percent of King County voters punched “no” on I-1107, making King one of the only two counties willing to support the junk food tax. The number was even higher in Seattle, where nearly 65 percent of voters rejected I-1107.

Given the support from the state’s urban center, will Murray and crew make another go at taxing unhealthy eats? More than likely. The senator enjoys good beer as much as the next guy, but admits that a cold brew—which under the bill he supported would be taxed 28 cents more per six-pack—is not a life necessity. He says it’s worth a few extra cents if health care and education programs can benefit.

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