Navajo nation to get first junk food tax in U.S. (Reuters / Thinkstock)
Navajo nation to get first junk food tax in U.S.
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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 out in New York and Berkeley, California. And places in between.

One community recently made drastic moves. It will target peoples eating habits.

The Navajo National Council just announced that it has approved a 2-percent increase in sales tax on some foods. They include pastries, fried foods, desserts, chips and sodas, reports Leilani Clark for Mother Jones magazine. She writes:

Authored by the Din 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.

The Navajo law is called the Healthy Din Nation Act. It hasn't attracted the same amount of media attention as New York's infamous soda ban. However, 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, thats 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, former 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. There, the cost will not include 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. To what extent is debated, reports Tamar Haspel for the Washington Post. Haspel suggests another approach. Taxing added sugar in the supply chain itself might be more effective. She writes:

If we tax sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and other added sugars at the point where theyre 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, its called.

The Navajo Nations 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.

The tax hike will expire at the end of 2018. The Council could vote to extend it.

Critical thinking challenge: Why was the tax removed from fresh fruit and vegetables?

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