California senator pushes for a “sin tax” on junk foods, the
latest battle in the war to define what Americans should—and
you ready to pay a “sin” tax on that can of Coke or Pepsi?
It is not as far-fetched as junk-food addicts might think.
Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Calif.) has proposed a two-cent tax
on soda pop to fund education programs to combat the growing
epidemic of childhood obesity and related diseases, such as
heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Coke and Pepsico, and their friends in the junk-food business,
will likely crush the initiative supported by parents and
public health officials. Yet it is a sign of things to come
as parents are already complaining about the exclusive “pouring”
contracts that Coke and Pepsi are battling over to sell their
sugar-laden drinks to schoolchildren.
In California, the state Legislature has already banned the
sale of junk food in elementary and middle schools by 2004,
and other states such as Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico are
debating whether to regulate the new fast-food-heavy “food
courts” that are popping up in many middle and high schools.
This new movement to put a sin tax on junk food is just the
latest battle in the 30-year war to define what is “healthy”
to eat. Food producers and marketers such as Kraft, (owned
by Philip Morris), Unilever, Pepsico, Groupe Danone and General
Mills have quelled critics and dominated the debate over government
nutrition standards. The food marketers have stopped the government
from sending out clear nutritional guidelines about what is
healthy to eat and what types of food should be avoided.
The fundamental problem is that affluent Americans consume
too many calories munching on sweets, fast food and sugar-based
soft drinks. The data are quite startling. Americans on average
eat 500 more calories in food than we did 30 years ago. We
are drinking less milk, but our thirst for soft drinks has
doubled. And consumption of fat has also nearly doubled, as
evidenced by our expanding waistlines.
As a result, Americans have turned the famed food pyramid
on its head. We eat more sweets and fats than fruit and vegetables,
and do not get enough bread, pasta, milk and cheese.
The food industry is not helping matters. In 1998, two-thirds
of all new food products introduced were snacks, candies,
baked goods, soft drinks and dairy products, including ice
cream. And, hoping to profit on Americans’ guilt for eating
the wrong foods, marketers introduced a slew of “nutritionally
enhanced” foods, such as lowfat cookies, vitamin-enhanced
cereals and calcium-enriched juice drinks.
New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle finds
little to cheer about regarding the current state of the food
industry. Nestle, a veteran of the 1990s nutrition battles,
portrays an industry out of control and easily able to manipulate
federal regulators and nutritionists alike in her new book,
Nestle was hired in the mid-1980s by the U.S. Public Health
Service to help edit the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition
and Health, she was given some practical political advice:
No matter what the research on saturated fat, salt and cholesterol
suggested, never recommend that Americans should “eat less
meat” as a way to reduce saturated fat and prevent such chronic
health problems as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
In the business-friendly Reagan era, it was best not to irritate
food producers who could make a lot of noise in Congress and
squash the report. In the final report in 1988, Nestle inserted
the less offensive “eat lean meats” and suggested limits on
sugar for people with dental cavities.
In the late ’70s, liberal icon Sen. George McGovern, head
of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, set
off a firestorm by suggesting that mainstream Americans simply
eat too much—period. At the time, doctors were first discovering
an epidemic of heart disease; the American Heart Association
advised people to reduce fat intake, to limit saturated fats
to 10 percent of all calories and to cut cholesterol.
In 1977, McGovern released a groundbreaking report that called
for “eating less” to battle obesity, diabetes and other “killer
diseases.” The report, Dietary Goals for the United States,
called for Americans to eat more fruit, vegetables, whole
grains, poultry and fish. The South Dakota liberal encouraged
Americans to cut back on eating meat, eggs, butterfat, sugar
and salt. McGovern also urged American consumers to switch
from whole milk to skim milk.
The food producers, especially cattle ranchers and dairy processors,
revolted. They were extremely upset that their foods might
be “bad for you.” Cattle ranchers from McGovern’s home wanted
the report to be tabled. Meat and egg producers got a new
hearing to express their fury. And former Sen. Bob Dole, a
member of the committee, offered Wray Finney, president of
the National Cattlemen’s Association, an alternative to the
suggestion to “decrease consumption of meat.” Dole proposed
the now popular notion of “increasing consumption of lean
Finney replied: “Decrease is a bad word, senator.”
McGovern relented to the pressure and issued a revised version
of the dietary report a few months later. It beefed up advice
on obesity and alcohol consumption but allowed increased consumption
of salt and substituted the “eat less” meat recommendation
with the more political “choose meats, poultry and fish, which
will reduce saturated fat intake.”
McGovern also praised a McDonald’s fast food meal as “a nutritious
addition to a balanced diet.” Still, the committee issued
its report, but there was a heavy political cost as McGovern’s
committee was later merged with the Agriculture Committee
and the senator was defeated in his 1980 campaign for reelection.
That was the last time the U.S. government ever stated that
American should eat less. Over the last decade, the food industry
has spent a considerable amount of money and clout to restore
its public image and tone up its political muscles on Capitol
By the late-1990s, the milk-processing industry launched its
famous “milk mustache” campaign to boost milk consumption.
Three years ago, the $130 million ad campaign, funded in part
by a government food-marketing program, helped spike sagging
milk sales by .7 percent, mostly through sales of chocolate
The “milk mustache” pitch featured many well-known celebrities.
It also drew criticism from animal rights activists and people
who cannot digest milk. To dispel the controversy of its ad
campaign, the milk industry demonstrated its clout by featuring
then-Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in
a full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers.
The pitch was for the health benefits of lowfat milk. The
ad declared, “So what’s the best way to load up on calcium?
Drink low-fat or fat-free milk. We always keep a thermos in
Although Shalala was not paid for the ad, there is a clear
conflict of interest at play. At the time, Health and Human
Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were in the
process of naming an advisory panel for the 2000 Dietary Guidelines
And the Dairy Council was lobbying hard for a looser standard
of “high fat” and opposed inclusion of soy products into the
dairy category. The pressure campaign worked. The report did
not mix dairy and soy products on the food pyramid, and the
Dairy Council cheered.
Nestle provides ample accounts of food industry influence
in Washington. But it does not end there. The food industry
is deeply tied to nutrition research and in dispensing sensible
advice on food choices.
For example, Kraft Foods underwrites a popular Web site run
by the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
The site (Tufts Navigator) rates other nutrition Web
sites for scientific accuracy, context, balance and the depth
of coverage of nutrition topics. It gave high ratings to the
American Dietetic Association, the National Pork Producers
Council, Campbell’s Soup and the American Cattlemen’s Beef
The corporately funded Tufts site had few kind words for public-interest
voices. The site run by the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, derided by critics as “the food police,” got a mediocre
grade. The Tufts graders did not find a problem with the accuracy
of the CSPI information but instead took issue with the nonprofit’s
“sensationalist and alarmist tone.” CSPI rebutted the ranking,
noting that Kraft is a big marketer of such unhealthy fare
as hot dogs, margarine and processed cheese.
But what can be done to rein in the food industry? Nestle,
an academic, provides few answers other than to patronize
farmers markets and buy more organic produce. What’s needed
is nothing short of a new “eat less” movement that will get
the American government to establish clear dietary guidelines
based on health standards that have been recognized for decades.
It’s really a matter of forcing politicians to have the backbone
to stand up to the food and snack companies. The parents and
public health officials in California pushing for a sin tax
on soda or “liquid candy” are off to a good start.