If Hungary can tax junk food, why not Massachusetts? Hungary has long been one of Europe’s poster countries for bad health. At 28.5 percent, its adult obesity level is one of the highest in Europe.
That epidemic of obesity finally stirred the government to action.
"It was so bad," said Hungarian health minister Miklos Szocska. "We had to find some way for this to stop."
Two years ago, Hungary approved a tax on sugary sodas, energy drinks, and packaged snacks high in salt and sugar, adding up to the equivalent of 20 cents to the price of a typical snack. The government collected the equivalent of $42 million from those taxes in the first half of this year, a substantial portion of which has gone into raises for health care workers.
"To be honest, when we started this, we were shooting in the dark," Szocska told me at a health summit this month in Qatar. "Could we really generate money and influence behavior at the same time?" There were also concerns that the new taxes would hurt businesses. "Our response was that workers were already being hurt with their health and missing work by being sick," the Hungarian health minister said.
Szocska said he has been pleasantly surprised at some early evidence of declines in snack sales, though he concedes that it's difficult to determine how much of that decrease is the result of the new taxes and how much was caused by the recession.
Still, Szocska said there's no doubt that the taxes have provoked household conversations and commercial decisions that, collectively, could make a big difference. He noted that Red Bull, the "energy drink" company, has trimmed operations in Hungary because of declining consumption and said other companies are reducing the salt content in some of their products.
"Some people are beginning to think if it's taxed, it might be bad for you," Szocska said. "I was recently in the supermarket and — I'm not kidding — I heard a little girl tell her mother at the cash register, 'Mommy, don't buy that candy. It's got the public health tax.' "
Public health experts are increasingly interested in the promise of such an approach. For example, research published last year in the British Medical Journal concluded that a tax of 20 percent on junk food would yield meaningful declines in obesity in England.
So far, however, similar efforts have gone nowhere in Massachusetts. Governor Patrick has repeatedly called for ending the exemption candy and soda enjoy from the state's sales tax. This fall, state Representative Kay Khan tried to revive the issue. Her bill to end that exemption won support from the widely respected Boston Foundation, which estimates that the obesity epidemic costs Massachusetts about $1.8 billion a year in directly related health care expenses.
"This is not a drastic proposal," Paul Grogan, president of the foundation, said in written testimony. "This is removing preferred tax status from products that have no nutritional value and have a proven link to rising obesity."
So far, the Legislature hasn't been receptive to those arguments. The next time the issue comes up, lawmakers should take a look at what's happened in Hungary.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.