Throughout history, societies have found peculiar ways to reinforce social hierarchies and class-based discrimination. A common way is to prohibit certain social classes from being able to purchase a good. These types of laws that regulate permitted consumption of particular goods and services are known as sumptuary laws. A prime example is the 16th-century French law that banned anyone but princes from wearing velvet.
Modern America is too committed to the appearance of egalitarianism to make laws that directly ban poor people from enjoying the same goods as the rich. Instead, we use taxes to discourage the use of products that wealthy people tend not to consume much of anyway, such as “junk” foods.
Governments often use the excuse that they are doing us a favor since such unhealthy foods lead to health problems such as obesity and diabetes. But as a new paper in the Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy finds, consumers’ buying habits “do not change markedly in response to the higher prices, and that the burden of those taxes falls most heavily on the low-income, who allocate larger shares of their budgets to food than wealthier people do.”
In assessing these kinds of taxes, it’s critical to understand the consumption choices people have available. Many programs have tried to address unhealthy eating, but individuals eat junk food not just because they enjoy it, but also because of a complex web of eating habits, accessibility of stores, cooking abilities, and time pressures. Even when consumers in lower-income neighborhoods want to buy healthier foods, their options are limited.
High-sugar and high-fat foods are shelf-stable, making them more convenient than food that spoils quickly and giving them a much lower price per calorie consumed. The absence of healthy options in so-called urban food deserts means that taxing junk food will disproportionately harm the people living there. Also, as everyone who has bought food from a vending machine knows, the combination of accessibility and hunger can trigger the purchase of unhealthy food.
Moreover, diet is only one component of a healthy lifestyle. The other components, such as regular exercise and adequate sleep, are not directly related to tax policy.