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Taxes on junk food will help promote healthier lifestyles

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Last week, Denmark became the first nation to levy a fat tax at the register. Danes will now pay an extra 12 cents for a bag of potato chips and 40 cents more for a hamburger. People are accustomed to “sin” taxes for alcohol and tobacco. Are we ready for taxes on fat, salt and sugar?

The World Health Organization recently announced that chronic disease including heart problems, stroke and diabetes have now become the world’s leading cause of mortality, representing almost two-thirds of all deaths. As we reported earlier, unlike infectious disease, previously the leading cause of death, chronic illnesses start early, progress slowly and last a lifetime. They result in both a substantial loss of productivity and the need for a staggering amount of health care over time. The kicker is that so many chronic diseases can be prevented by a healthy lifestyle that includes lower fat, salt and sugar intake.

In Hawaii, during the recent legislative session, lawmakers proposed a new tax on sugary drinks; 10 cents on beverage containers of 12 ounces or less and 25 cents on containers over 12 ounces. Sugary beverages were defined to include soda, sweetened water, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee or tea, and fruit or vegetable drinks with less than 70 percent natural fruit and vegetable juice. The bill failed.

Sen. Josh Green (D, Milolii-Waimea), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said he would support a new tax if proceeds went to health and prevention. He’s right. The soda tax would have brought in $44 million a year, with about $10 million directed to prevent obesity and diabetes. The public and our lawmakers want to know that any “lifestyle” taxes would be spent on relevant education and medical treatment.

The bill also encountered public opposition on the grounds that the government should not be in the business of telling us how to live or taxing our lifestyle. Yet government health care programs and taxpayers get stuck with the bill when the way we live leads to obesity, diabetes and chronic disease.

Governments are not the only organizations concerned with sugary drinks consumed by its citizens. Soda manufactures have a big stake, too. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and their competitors invest huge sums in marketing and advertising to drive people to their products. Are they not trying to tell us how to live in a far more compelling manner? Do they have us so convinced that we regard a tax of 10 cents per drink as a threat to our freedom?

Health education is important, but it is not the final solution. Most people already know that a fresh papaya is healthier than a Freedom Fry. As Americans we pride ourselves in personal responsibility, but along with the rest of the world, according to the WHO, we have succumbed to a new epidemic.

Taxes on fat, salt and sugar are not suddenly going to change what people eat and drink. However, for the time being, these taxes, if put to good use, may help governments pay the tab to treat lifestyle illnesses.

Ira Zunin, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to
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