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The Navajo Nation Will Have the First Junk Food Tax in the U.S.

The Navajo National Council approved a 2 percent increase in sales tax on foods like pastries, fried foods, desserts, chips and soda

(James Leynse/30127183A/Corbis)
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How should governments govern soda? An outright ban on large sugary drinks? A tiny tax? Or not at all? This debate has been playing in New York, Berkeley, and places in between—and one community recently made drastic moves to target people’s eating habits.

The Navajo National Council just announced that they have approved a 2 percent increase in sales tax on foods like pastries, fried foods, desserts, chips and sodas, reports Leilani Clark for Mother Jones. She writes:

Authored by the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), a grassroots organization of community volunteers, the legislation was modeled on existing taxes on tobacco and alcohol, as well as other fat and sugar tax initiatives outside the United States. The act follows on the heels of a spring 2014 amendment that removed a 5 percent tribal sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Called the Healthy Diné Nation Act, this law hasn't attracted the same amount of media attention as New York's infamous soda ban. But it will bring the total tax on low-nutrition foods to 7 percent. All the revenue from the increase will go toward a fund to build "wellness centers, parks, basketball courts, trails, swimming pools, picnic grounds and health education classes," reports Alysa Landry for Indian Country. She adds:

An estimated 10 percent of the Navajo population has diabetes, said David Foley, an epidemiologist for the Navajo Nation Division of Health. In numbers, that’s about 24,600 people. Another 75,000 people are pre-diabetic.

The junk food tax is unprecedented, not just in Indian Country but in the nation as a whole, said Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of the Notah Begay III Foundation, a non-profit organization that combats obesity and diabetes among Natives.

“This is the only one in the country, so the national significance of this cannot be underplayed,” she said. “Bigger cities have been trying to get something like this passed for years, and the Navajo Nation is the first to get it done.”

Whether the tax will help health outcomes for the Navajo population remains to be seen. Landry points out that the border towns around the reservation will still sell junk food without the extra tax. However, previous soda taxes, such as the one in Mexico that began at the start of 2014, do seem to show some effect on soda sales — though to what extent is debated, reports Tamar Haspel for the Washington Post. Haspel suggests that taxing added sugar in the supply chain itself might be a more effective approach. She writes:

 If we tax sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and other added sugars at the point where they’re manufactured or imported (we already do tax imported sugar), we essentially tax everything with added sugar, commensurate with its sugar content (with the exception of foods already manufactured before we import them). An “input tax,” it’s called.

The Navajo Nation’s tax is somewhere between a soda tax and an input tax. Whether the tax and the fund to create active spaces for the tribe helps remains to be seen. And there is probably a timeline: The tax hike will expire at the end of 2018 unless the Council votes to extend it.

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