Junk Food Tax Aims to Beat Diabetes Epidemic in Neglected Corner of America

The Healthy Diné Nation Act will go into effect next month in an effort to reduce diet-related disease in the Navajo Nation.

(Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Mar 27, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Everyone seems to agree that people should eat less junk food, but few agree on the most effective means to reach a less-obese end.

Some think the invisible and all-knowing hand of capitalism should be left unattended and the market will soon grow to a fatness tipping point and stop demanding unhealthy products. Others think it all starts with education in the home, and if kids are raised on a diet of vegetables and nutritional morals they’ll grow up to crave butter lettuce over Butterfingers.

But the Navajo Nation is taking a novel and aggressive approach to reduce its incredibly high rate of dietary disease: a 2 percent tax on all junk food within the 27,400-square-mile reservation.

The Navajo Nation desperately needs a healthy overhaul. Epidemiologist David Foley of the Navajo Nation Division of Health told Indian Country that 10 percent of the tribe—24,600 people—has diabetes. The obesity rate is also higher than 60 percent in some age groups.

The Healthy Diné Nation Act was approved by Navajo Nation Council President Ben Shelly last year, but won’t go into effect until April 1. Not only will it tax junk food but it will also drop the standard 5 percent sales tax on all fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and bottled water.

The HDNA—though not technically an American law since tribes have sovereignty—is the nation’s second sin tax passed in an attempt to curb obesity: Berkeley added a one-cent per ounce fee on sugar-sweetened beverages this January. Berkeley’s law is too new to gauge effectiveness, but the supply and demand relationship can be seen in Mexico’s soda tax passed in January 2014.

In the first three months of the one-peso-per-liter tax—which is about a 5 percent price increase—soda consumption dropped 10 percent, and third-quarter Coca-Cola sales were down 6.4 percent from the previous year.

It would seem that taxes are effective in dictating consumer behavior, but do they actually make people healthier? No one really knows yet. Many have argued that the soda taxes in particular leave too many high-calorie options open for business. People obviously won’t lose weight if they’re drinking less soda and eating more Pop-Tarts.

The HDNA is so important because it takes a less singular approach to influencing positive dietary habits. It will tax “foods of little or no nutritional value”—chips, soda, candy, pastries, fast food—on the reservation, and also reduce prices of healthy alternatives.

It won’t be as simple as trading in candy bars for apples: almost the entire reservation is considered a food desert. With a 38 percent poverty rate, and youth unemployment reaching nearly 50 percent, according to census data, many rightfully fear that the tax will force families to pay more for their groceries, and not do enough to provide access to healthy foods.

No matter what the end result is, the HDNA will undoubtedly be an important data point for future efforts to combat American obesity, especially in low-income areas.