US Policies That Define Foods for Junk Food Taxes, 1991–2021

Original Scholarship
Population Health

Policy Points:

  • Suboptimal diet is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity in the United States.
  • Excise taxes on junk food are not widely utilized in the United States. The development of a workable definition of the food to be taxed is a substantial barrier to implementation.
  • Three decades of legislative and regulatory definitions of food for taxes and related purposes provide insight into methods to characterize food to advance new policies. Defining policies through Product Categories combined with Nutrients or Processing may be a method to identify foods for health-related goals.

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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Pomeranz JL, Cash SB, Mozaffarian D. US Policies That Define Foods for Junk Food Taxes, 1991–2021. Milbank Q. 2023;101(2):0426.