By next week, a junk food tax might officially be on the books in the contiguous United States of America. The tax would boost the standard 5 percent sales tax by 2 percent for purchases of soda and foods high in fat and sugar in an area that’s larger than West Virginia. It would not, however, be an American law.
No, it’s the Navajo Nation that’s on the brink of passing a junk food tax. The Healthy Diné Nation Act passed the tribal council last Thursday and must be approved or vetoed by Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, within 10 days. The council also passed a separate bill (that garnered all but unanimous support) removing the 5 percent tax on fruits, vegetables, water, nuts, seeds, and nut butters sold on the 27,400-square-mile reservation.
The junk food tax addresses a public health crisis that’s even more severe on tribal lands. According to the federal Indian Health Service, more than 80 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives between the ages of 20 and 74 are either overweight or obese. For children, the rate is somewhere between 45 percent and 51 percent. Additionally, the American Indian and Alaska Native population has the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the United States—a reality that one of the bill’s sponsors, Danny Simpson, says members of the Navajo Nation are acutely aware of.
“Each one of us here has a relative that’s diabetic, and we face that fact every single day,” he said before the council’s vote.
Epidemiologist David Foley of the Navajo Nation Division of Health told Indian Country that 10 percent of the tribe has diabetes—24,600 people. Meanwhile, 75,000 Navajo are pre-diabetic, according to Foley.
While the revenue will be put toward the Community Wellness Development Projects Fund to finance public parks, recreational facilities, trails, and health education efforts, there are concerns that the Navajo can’t afford the additional tax. The poverty rate is 38 percent on the reservation, according to the 2010 Census, and nearly the entire area is considered a food desert. Foods that would be taxed at a higher rate under the act represent the majority of choices in some stores, as Denise Livingston of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance told Utah Public Radio. In such a retail reality, the cheaper and healthier options simply might not exist.
The history of alcoholism on the reservation is not a promising precedent. Although the Navajo Nation is officially dry, alcohol is readily available in border towns. Alcoholism kills Native Americans at a rate 514 percent higher than it does non-indigenous citizens.
Many tribe members travel off the reservation to shop for food as well. With retail options limited on the reservation and no junk food tax in place off it, the measure, if it becomes law, might not have any significant impact.
As is the case in urban areas with high poverty and obesity, it appears that a problem of access underlies the Navajo Nation's public health problems. Taxing junk food could push residents away from unhealthy choices, but they need to have readily available healthy alternatives if the diet of the Navajo Nation is going to change on the whole.