Proposed fast-food tax seems poorly designed

Articles
June 25, 2009

Proposed fast-food tax seems poorly designed

The money troubles faced by Nassau County (Long Island, NY) will soon result in red-light cameras, higher fees of many kinds on its citizens—and possibly a 2% tax on fast-food purchases in the 2010 budget. If the proposal passes many political hurdles and becomes law, it would place the New York City suburb at the helm of government attempting to influence consumer decisions about the foods they buy. How effective could this be? Do the patrons of fast-food restaurants have a great deal of economic choice about where they go to eat? Would lower-income consumers be the ones most penalized by a tax some regard as regressive, at a time when many fumble around their pockets for the money to buy a value meal? We’re not saying fast food is the wisest nutritional choice. Far from it. However, we are saying proponents of this law need to be honest about what it is: an attempt to help close a yawning budget gap. Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi told Newsday: “In the best of all possible worlds, it’s better to try to discourage unhealthy behavior instead of relying on property taxes. We’re just trying to figure out the way to solve the problems without wrecking the county and without raising property taxes.”

The money troubles faced by Nassau County (Long Island, NY) will soon result in red-light cameras, higher fees of many kinds on its citizens—and possibly a 2% tax on fast-food purchases in the 2010 budget.

If the proposal passes many political hurdles and becomes law, it would place the New York City suburb at the helm of government attempting to influence consumer decisions about the foods they buy. How effective could this be? Do the patrons of fast-food restaurants have a great deal of economic choice about where they go to eat? Would lower-income consumers be the ones most penalized by a tax some regard as regressive, at a time when many fumble around their pockets for the money to buy a value meal?

We’re not saying fast food is the wisest nutritional choice. Far from it. However, we are saying proponents of this law need to be honest about what it is: an attempt to help close a yawning budget gap.

Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi told Newsday: “In the best of all possible worlds, it’s better to try to discourage unhealthy behavior instead of relying on property taxes. We’re just trying to figure out the way to solve the problems without wrecking the county and without raising property taxes.”  

Oh. Is that why he and his legislators haven’t decided if they want good-for-you purchases such as grilled chicken, salads, fruit cups, milk or juice to be taxed if purchased at a fast-food restaurant?  Is that why they haven’t conceived of a tax on unhealthy foods bought at the supermarket (there are abundant choices there), or heavily buttered meals at white tablecloth restaurants?

When Oakland, CA, became the first city in the United States to impose a litter fee on fast-feeders, convenience stores and other sellers of takeout foods and beverages in 2006, city officials directly connected the fee to the trash problem. In our opinion, that was honest and understandable, even if that fee was passed along to consumers.

This current initiative looks to us like a plain and simple money grab by the County.  Better motivated, however, is a bill proposed by Nassau legislator Jeff Toback that would require franchise restaurants to post the calorie counts of each food item. It follows last year’s enactment of a similar law in New York City.  As an interim measure, this could possibly lead to better meal choices, but we at SupermarketGuru.com would prefer to see a national standard that all consumers could come to recognize and rely on.