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Jennifer L. Pomeranz
Sean B. Cash
Feb 27, 2024
Jan 22, 2024
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Context: Suboptimal diet is a substantial contributor to weight gain, cardiometabolic diseases, and certain cancers. Junk food taxes can raise the price of the taxed product to reduce consumption and the revenue can be used to invest in low-resource communities. Taxes on junk food are administratively and legally feasible but no definition of “junk food” has been established.
Methods: To identify legislative and regulatory definitions characterizing food for tax and other related purposes, this research used Lexis+ and the NOURISHING policy database to identify federal, state, territorial, and Washington DC statutes, regulations, and bills (collectively denoted as “policies”) defining and characterizing food for tax and related policies, 1991–2021.
Findings: This research identified and evaluated 47 unique laws and bills that defined food through one or more of the following criteria: Product Category (20 definitions), Processing (4 definitions), Product intertwined with Processing (19 definitions), Place (12 definitions), Nutrients (9 definitions), and Serving Size (7 definitions). Of the 47 policies, 26 used more than one criterion to define food categories, especially those with nutrition-related goals. Policy goals included taxing foods (snack, healthy, unhealthy, or processed foods), exempting foods from taxation (snack, healthy, unhealthy, or unprocessed foods), exempting homemade or farm-made foods from state and local retail regulations, and supporting federal nutrition assistance objectives. Policies based on Product Categories alone differentiated between necessity/staple foods on the one hand and nonnecessity/nonstaple foods on the other.
Conclusions: In order to specifically identify unhealthy food, policies commonly included a combination of Product Category, Processing, and/or Nutrient criteria. Explanations for repealed state sales tax laws on snack foods identified retailers’ difficulty pinpointing which specific foods were subject to the tax as a barrier to implementation. An excise tax assessed on manufacturers or distributors of junk food is a method to overcome this barrier and may be warranted.
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The Milbank Quarterly is an editorially independent multidisciplinary journal that offers in-depth assessments of the social, economic, political, historical, legal, and ethical dimensions of health and health care policy.