Navajo Nation Passes First Junk Food Tax In U.S.

Navajo Nation Passes First Junk Food Tax In U.S.

Last week, the Navajo Nation became the first region in the U.S. to tax junk food, in an effort to reduce its 10 percent obesity rate.

Called the Healthy Dine Nation Act, the Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles between Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, also eliminated a 5 percent sales tax that had formerly been imposed on fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Revenues from the sin tax will reportedly be channeled toward community wellness projects like farmer’s markets, vegetable gardens and greenhouses,” reports TIME magazine.

The junk food tax is expected to target foods with “minimal-to-no-nutritional value”, according to the Tribe, which includes sodas and other sweetened beverages, as well as snacks that contain high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat. “But the act also targets diet soda, fruit juice, nuts and sugar-free Jell-O,” explains the Los Angeles Times. And defining junk food as it relates to the tax has not been easy, “Tribal council members said soft drink industry lobbyists urged them keep soda and sports drinks out of the legislation.”

“Approximately 24,600 Navajo tribe members face obesity, according to the Navajo Area Indian Health Service,” explains TIME. “Type 2 diabetes has emerged as a growing public health concern afflicting up to 60% of reservation residents in some areas.”

What’s worse, poverty afflicts about 40 percent of the Navajo reservation, and nearly half of its youth population is unemployed. And a recent poll found that 74 percent of Tribe members think food is directly related to the health problems on the reservation. A lack of fresh food and too much processed food, are pointed to as the likeliest of culprits in the nation’s health problems.

Outside of the reservation, Americans also face a serious obesity crisis—about one-third of all Americans are overweight or obese. But even still, junk food bans and taxes have not been embraced. A long campaign initiated by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban large-sized sodas was reversed by a judge on the grounds that the ban passed by the Board of Health “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority.”

Berkeley, Calif., known for being home to food advocates including Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, recently passed a tax on soda, even while sister city San Francisco failed to pass a similar measure. Credit can go to the American Beverage Association, which lobbied heavily against the tax and spent millions in advertising to keep the measure from passing.

And while some members of the Navajo nation say the tax won’t deter them from purchasing their favorite junk food products, if the money raised can help increase availability of fresh food in the region—and even put a dent in the obesity and type 2 diabetes rates—perhaps the rest of the country will begin to take a look at the merits of the program.

The Navajo junk food tax is up for reauthorization in 2020.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.