Mark Bittman on Taxing Bad Food to Subsidize the Good

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman talks about taxing unhealthy foods. His article in the Times’ Sunday Review on July 24, “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables,” looks at why it’s so difficult to market healthy foods successfully.


Mark Bittman

Comments [40]

Tom from Long Island

Fresh food costs a lot to transport, house and eventually offer to the consumer. The taxes/fines needed on the other foods (and who will ultimately judge those fines, and how much?) to subsidize them would be absurd and wholly impossible to pass thru any reasonable Congress - even our bunch of current loons.

Bodegas, and poorer urban area markets cant afford to offer fresh foods like they can in the suburban, ritzy urban 'hoods...they cant afford the cooler cases, the energy, the waste, etc...

Maybe we should subsidize fresh-food mega-marts like Whole Foods, etc to build in these poor markets...?

Aug. 02 2011 08:57 PM
Kelly DeVito, Karyn Kirschhbaum, Gail Volk from Wheatley Heights, NY

Mark Bittman captures the essence of our nation’s growing health crisis and the negative role private industry is playing. By framing this public health dilemma as a government responsibility, Mr. Bittman’s recommendations could improve the quality of all our lives.

More and more national and local campaigns are addressing healthful eating and physical activity. Yet the likelihood of these efforts making a dent in an environment where unhealthy foods are marketed everywhere, especially to the young and poor, is doubtful. The fast-food and food industries are not the only culprits; pharmaceutical companies are equally guilty as they develop and profit from unhealthy “food” products.

Information alone cannot reverse the trends and progressive reform is needed. In a nation that enjoys the benefits of free enterprise, we need our government to create innovative incentives for businesses to succeed, without sacrificing the health of our children.

Aug. 02 2011 01:40 PM

Last proposal:

Since we are social engineering, why not take some of tax to raise the wages of fast-food workers? Slap a 20% tip on top of the price. Give it to the workers.

Aug. 02 2011 01:07 PM


That is true, of course. It is also true that people who are overweight according to BMI have higher life expectancy than the normal ones, and obese people who exercise well, are as good as normal and thin.
But, these silenced facts, really doesn't mean that it is not a great idea to tax fast food and make veggies cheaper.

Aug. 02 2011 01:01 PM
RBC from FiDi

For the love of man MCDONALDS DOES NOT OWN CHIPOTLE!!!!! I'm sick and tired of hearing this over and over again.

About 6 years ago or so, McDonalds owned stock in Chipotle as an investment and then they sold it at a profit. That was it! McDonalds was never involved in the operations of Chipotle or did they control any part of the Chipotle company.

Aug. 02 2011 01:00 PM
hugo from new york

this is the most important epidemic ever. it is increasing exponentially along with the insulin resistant diabtes, obesity, hypertension, atherosclerosis, kidney failure, and degenerative joint disease.
all other diseases in this country pale in comparison with this self-inflicted maladie.
i applaud Mr. Bittman for raising this subject. i suggest starting by taxing the corn syrup, the excess salt and the absence of essential nutrition.

Aug. 02 2011 12:56 PM
RBC from FiDi

@Chip - I agree with you 10,000%

I work for a health insurance company - 65% of health care costs come from only 3% of the members. Most of these members are the elderly or patients with diseases that are not related to obesity.

Also, if we want to talk about health, we need to stop making "healthy" and "thin" synonyms - you can be thin but also be unhealthy. Also just because someone loses weight doesn't mean they're healthy either.

Aug. 02 2011 12:50 PM
Contra from West Village


Aug. 02 2011 12:47 PM
Mhari Sandoval

As someone who was VERY broke for the first 5 years or so after college -- When you don't have $, a large soda will fill you up better than water. Also, if you're out in the city, and you need to hydrate -- water is MORE expensive than soda. I agree that these kinds of foods are unhealthy. I don't eat a lot of fast food or any fast food anymore. I just don't think that most college educated, middle class folks realize how much those foods are survival for the poor, both in terms of affordability and energy for preparation.

Aug. 02 2011 12:46 PM
Robin Brown

By personal experience I can tell you that sugar can be addictive for some people. For me it is as toxic as any other addictive substance. The only solution for me has been to leave it out of my food entirely.

I have been to social functions where there is nothing I can drink because I have chosen also to avoid artificial sweeteners.

Aug. 02 2011 12:44 PM
Matt Bancroft from Hoboken

Hi Mark - when you comment about the negative health impacts of soda. Is this true for diet soda as well or just regular soda because of the corn syrup and the calories? Many thanks.

Aug. 02 2011 12:44 PM

The "poor" argument is ridiculous.

It has been proven many times, that buying in season veggies and fruits is cheaper than fast-food.
in NYC it is available in food charts to very low prices.

People with more money eat better because they are smarter and stronger, this is also why they have more money.
If you are stupid about how you eat, chances are you are stupid about other life-choices as well.
In any case: YAY Tax to make delish veggies even cheaper!

Aug. 02 2011 12:43 PM
Larry from Nyack

What about the government subsidies that fill school lunches with "surplus" cheese and meat? The school vending machines? The in-school fast food franchises? These are giving kids the wrong message!

Aug. 02 2011 12:42 PM
caitlinmac from Brooklyn

Hey Mark, what do you think about chains like the Mcdonalds' owned Chipotle as "healthy alternatives" to their own crap?

Aug. 02 2011 12:41 PM
Ed from Larchmont

It seems to make sense to promote good foods and make them available to more people. But if we're against disease, why would we make same sex marriage legal, which promotes AIDS?

Aug. 02 2011 12:41 PM
Nigel Kelly from NYC

I am a US citizen, though I was born and raised in England. It strikes me that there is no mystery regarding healthy eating – the question is: who benefits from maintaining the status quo?
One effective and legal way to eliminate future voters who might vote for the ‘wrong side’, and might also have a native tongue other than English (which could displace English as the predominant language spoke in the US), is to encourage them to involuntary suicide through the consumption of unhealthy food. In the short-term the nation’s healthcare costs might, in theory, rise. But planned healthcare and other social welfare cuts will take care of that.

It troubles me to think that an, ever-growing, affluent, ruling, elite may personally benefit (at least as they see it) by the continued subsidy of junk food.

Nigel Kelly

Aug. 02 2011 12:41 PM

There is no doubt that raising taxes on unhealthy food will improve people's health, but there is absolutley no evidence that it will save in health care costs. Just as in the instance of smoking, people who don't get ill from obesity related diseases will live longer and get ill from other diseases. As a matter of fact, unless the diseases of old age are cheaper to treat (and things like alzheimers, cancer, and broken hips are not cheap), there will be an increase in health care costs, especially as long as health care costs are inflating at a rate higher than the rate of inflation. Furthermore, as with smoking, there will be a huge transfer of the costs from the private sector which covers the under 65 age group to the older age group which is covered by medicare and thus by the rest of us.

Aug. 02 2011 12:40 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

@ RBC from FiDi

I agree with you completely.

Mark, I've been listening to you speak for years. I also enjoy your cookbooks immensely. But your paternalistic tone "know it all" is really pissing me off.

Aug. 02 2011 12:40 PM

People keep eating fatty-salty-sweet highten food-

Because of EVOLUTION! It is not the ads, the ads are catering to deep tastes.

That was a dumb argument from Bittman to blame ads and fastfood restos. Uniformed.

Aug. 02 2011 12:39 PM

It's frustrating to listen to this discussion and not hear one mention of what I believe is the real culprit to America's poor health, THE CAR. Encouraging Americans to eat less will not cure the obesity issue alone. We recently relocated to suburban NJ from living in Tokyo for three years. Many tend to reference the Japanese model of consuming vegetables, fish and less meat. While this true, a big part of the equation is missing. In Japan, people WALK. And, despite standard thinking, the Japanese people do not avoid fat. Case in point, dark meat chicken is more expensive that the breast. And "fry" is one on the methods of cooking encouraged (along with with simmer, broil, steam, & raw), referred to as "go ho". I don't even have a side walk in front of my suburban home. Along with food reform, we need car reform.

Aug. 02 2011 12:39 PM

I'm a fan of Mr. Bitttman's culinary writing and found him charming in those little recipe videos he did for the Times. I can also see the logic of what he's proposing, and appreciate how the symmetry of taxing bad food to subsidize good food must appeal to him.

But I find myself very uncomfortable with this degree of intrusion by the state into our private lives. This particular flavor of discomfort has a long history in our country, which began, you may recall, when a "non-essential" part of our diet -- tea -- was taxed.

Subsidizing vegetables is a good idea, but lets find the money for that by ending the subsidies for industrialized crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Mr. Bittman repeatedly makes analogies to laws requiring us to wear seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles, or to the taxes on cigarettes. But the analogies are false.

In all those case, the only people paying the tax or subject to the safety rules are those actually engaging in driving the cars and cycles or addicted to the cigarettes. For example, if I take the subway and never get in a car, the seatbelt law doesn't affect me.

But under Mr. Bittman's proposal, I'd have to pay a soda tax or a french-fry tax even if I only bought them occasionally and consuming them had never caused me to become obese or otherwise unhealthy.

I just can't see supporting a law that punishes the innocent along with the guilty.

Aug. 02 2011 12:38 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Another liberal trying to "reeducate" the fat, stupid slobs :) You might as well try to reeducate pigs at the trough! :)
I agree, that if we cut price supports in the corn industry, and stopped ingesting so much corn sugar and other carbohydrates in processed form it would be highly desirable.
But the food processing industry is almost 10% of the economy, and time of high unemployment, not likely to get much change. WHat can be done is keeping it STRICTLY out of schools so kids get other kinds of food other than the fattening junk they get outside and often at home.

And what is wrong wtih soda is SUGAR! Tax SUGAR!

Aug. 02 2011 12:37 PM
Jamaica from Colorado

I'd like to invite Mr. Bittman (whose cookbooks I adore) to examine his distinctions between morality ("working towards the common good") and aesthetics. Imagine we lived in a country that had a good health care system and increased costs were not an issue: would he still be pushing this initiative? If so, why?

Aug. 02 2011 12:32 PM
steve from Stony Brook

Hi, All -

This is silly. Cutting (or simply eliminating) the massive subsidies to corn farmers would make junk foods (eg: all foods based on high-fructose corn syrup) more expensive.

Use NY's cigarette tax to measure the degree of linear reductive consumption as a function of tax increase. Use these data to project for junk foods and then only slightly tax them.

Cutting subsidies and a slight "sin tax" increase would accomplish what Bittman is saying, but be Federally fiscally more prudent. Either that or simply shift the subsidy (not 1:1, though) to healthier foods (cruciferous vegetables, etc.).

Aug. 02 2011 12:31 PM
RBC from FiDi

A couple of responses:

"We do NOT have a total consensus on which foods are "bad."
Absolutely! I would hate to see food become political. Also, many food choices have to do with ethnicity as cuisines and tastes vary between regions and people. So this may be almost impossible.

But I have to add: why isn't increased mobility and exercise never part of these discussions?? This is a key part of health and weight loss. Eating better is ONE step. The another step is exercise.

"The vendors on the street have the most amazing prices!"
Very true, but only if you can find one. Manhattan is rich in street vendors, but not very much in the outer boroughs. Also many neighborhoods - particularly areas with "economic empowerment zones" - have prohibited street vending.

"The idea of a subsidizing vegetables is a good one."
I agree. In my neighborhood, good veges are extremely expensive (grapes for $4 per pound!!!)

Aug. 02 2011 12:30 PM

This is a good tax revenue proposal.

Sure it is a bit insulting and paternalistic, as if any rational being cannot decide to eat onions, tomatoes, broccoli, and so on, rather than burgers.

Still, if it taxes dumb choices, everyone wins! (The only price is a bad aftertaste of nannystatism, but there is always a down side.)

Yay, sin-tax, yay veggies!

Aug. 02 2011 12:28 PM

Bittman describes the taxing of unhealthy foods as a value judgment about which foods are good for us (extending to how they are produced, their cultivation, etc.). But how can any value judgment be universally good, let alone warrant comparison to the earth being flat?

Whether we value something positively or negatively depends on our interests. On the other hand, facts, such as the earth being round or flat, depend on the world itself.

Let's avoid rhetoric that ignores such a simple distinction, and let's treat the unhealthy food tax like any other political issue. Like anything else, there are pros and cons.

Aug. 02 2011 12:28 PM

How about instead of raising taxes on crappy food we actually make healthy food affordable and curb the horrible advertising that dupes people into believing processed junk is healthy. (Yes, Nutrigrain bars, Cheerios and Lite&Fit yogurt are still processed and therefore not really healthy.) Not to mention the horrible quality of meat and dairy and the exorbitant prices of anything that comes close to natural, by which I mean not industrially produced, hormone fed, and pumped full of chemicals. It's the corporate, industrialized system of food production not people's eating habits that's the problem.

Aug. 02 2011 12:28 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

I agree in keeping sugary fast foods away from kids in schools and other venues populated by underage minors. However, I do not AGREE in having some liberal elite "know it alls" setting prices.

There is nothing wrong with well cooked hamburger! I eat at least one a day. What I do NOT eat is a bun, or any kind of bread, nor french fried or other kinds of potatoes, or sugary drinks. But to think that meat is BAD and VEGETABLES inherently "good" is ABSURD!!!
We were meat eaters for hundreds of thousands of years!

Aug. 02 2011 12:27 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The ONLY vegetables I have eaten regularly for the last dozen years is occasional cucumber and heads of lettuce. The only fruit I eat are blueberries for their antioxidant content. Most of my food consists of beef, turkey meat, eggs cooked in LOTS of butter! #

No high cholesterol me. No high blood pressure either. My doctor has been shocked for a dozen years. My weight at age 65 just a few over what I was in college all thanks to the Atkins diet.

Aug. 02 2011 12:25 PM
Steve from Manhattan

WOW. I'm surprised Mr. Bittman was able to fit his enormous ego into the same studio as today's guest host.

Aug. 02 2011 12:25 PM
Richard from Gramercy

Love Mark Bittman, and totally agree. Just wondering where he's finding $8 cigarettes? That's really cheap!

Aug. 02 2011 12:24 PM
Sophie from Poughekepsie, NY

Inaddition, as far as McDonalds, I would rather the kids eat the fries over the chicken nuggets.

Also, there are so many areas to address for example: Supporting local farms (which apparently the government is not good at). Gym in schools. Etc.

And the bigger issue is that American's eat too much in general, we're constantly snacking. We do NOT need more taxes!

Aug. 02 2011 12:24 PM
Gabriel from NYC

The idea of a subsidizing vegetables is a good one. Getting that subsidy from taxing people leaves a bad taste in my mouth though. More availability would go a long way in allowing for better choices. Punishing people for a lifetime of ignorance seems harsh.

Aug. 02 2011 12:22 PM
ellen dulberger from Mahopac, NY

Studies have shown that consumers make decisions considering the prices in the shelves and not factoring in taxes. In order to Mr. Bittman's proposal to work, we'd have to see a change in how prices are presented, a la the prices at the gas pumps which include taxes. Without such a change, his plan may not work.

Aug. 02 2011 12:22 PM
Sonne Hernandez from Chinatown

I would like you to ask your guest to address the idea of taxing coporations like McDonalds or Coke for PRODUCING the kind of foods and drinks that cause disease. Since regulation of these foods has failed and continues to fail.....tax em. Why is it the lower middle class should always have to be the one to foot the bill....esp since they are the biggest targeted by these foods because they often don't have the education or even grocery store that don't charge an arm n leg for proper foods.

Aug. 02 2011 12:21 PM
Udo Dirkenschneider from Fort Greene

I often buy veggies in Bronx- the prices are so great!

Got 5 pounds onion for $2. Same for potatoes. Green beans big sack for $3.

The vendors on the street have the most amazing prices!

So veggies are everywhere and cheap!

If Junk Food gets a little more expensive, perhaps people will eat veggies!

Yay veggies!!!

Aug. 02 2011 12:21 PM
Udo Dirkenschneider from Fort Greene

The vendors on the street have the most amazing prices!

So veggies are everywhere and cheap!

If Junk Food gets a little more expensive, perhaps people will eat veggies!

Yay veggies!!!

Aug. 02 2011 12:20 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

Personally, I getting very tired of the food police.

Aug. 02 2011 12:16 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Well, there is nothing new about "sin" taxes. We have them on alcohol and cigarettes, and others, and artificially taxing up the price to reduce consumption goes only so far. At some point, if demand is not reduced, you get a black market in untaxed bootleg.

However, regarding taxing "bad foods" that is far more difficult. We do NOT have a total consensus on which foods are "bad." I've been on the Atkins diet for over a dozen years, eating plenty of meat, eggs, butter etc, but reduced carbohydrate intake to a bare minimum, and I am 65 and in reasonably good health. But did cut out smoking nearly a dozen years ago as well. I think there is a consensus on tobacco and alcohol, but a consensus on food is just not there. We should restrict the use of processed fast foods in schools and elsewhere where underage children are the objects. When it comes to children, the money factor should never overrule their health concerns, which always must come first.

Aug. 02 2011 12:16 PM

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