In a few days, Congress will return to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. The program will pay for expanded coverage for children through an increase in cigarette taxes. The logic is to raise revenue while discouraging a behavior harmful to child health. Instead of a cigarette tax, however, Congress should address the health problem that research indicates is the greatest crisis facing America's young people by taxing junk food instead.
The new epidemic facing American children is obesity. The Foundation for Child Development's 2007 Child Well-Being Index has found that the overall health of America's children is the lowest since the index began in 1975. What is driving down the overall health of American children is the epidemic of obese and overweight kids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the percentage of Americans ages 6 to 11 who were overweight hovered in the 4 percent to 6 percent range during the 1960s and 1970s, but exploded to around 11 percent in the early 1990s, increased to more than 15 percent by 2000 and has continued to climb in recent years.
On the other hand, the index has found that American children are smoking less. According to the "Monitoring the Future" study at the University of Michigan, the percentage of 12th-graders in America who have tried cigarettes has dropped from more than 75 percent in 1978 to 47 percent in 2006. The percentages of 12th-, 10th- and eighth-graders who use cigarettes daily also fell markedly between 1996 and 2006: from 22 percent to 12 percent of 12th-graders; from 18 percent to fewer than 8 percent of 10th-graders; and from 10 percent to 4 percent of eighth-graders.
The obesity trend, however, is heading in the wrong direction. Researchers at the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a study last month predicting that unless behaviors change, by 2015, 75 percent of adults and nearly 24 percent of children and adolescents in the United States will be overweight or obese.
One of the significant contributing factors to this epidemic has been increased consumption of junk food - high-fat fast food, high-fructose corn syrup soft drinks, etc.
America is not doing right by its children. There are many ways policymakers could go about taxing junk food; policy proposals are out there to raise the costs of everything from hamburgers to sodas. The best place to start might be the root ingredients, such as sweeteners, MSG and trans-fats.
Funding SCHIP from junk food has the potential to raise more money, more evenly across the country, with less impact on the economy and in a less regressive way than with cigarette taxes. Compared with smokers, whose demographic has become more concentrated among lower-income groups, those who consume junk food are a much broader group. Therefore, the tax increases from junk food would be spread more broadly in the economy.
America should continue to be concerned about tobacco use. Cigarettes are addictive and deadly. However, public education, tobacco settlements, anti-smoking campaigns and higher taxes on cigarettes over the past few decades have drastically lowered cigarette smoking among children. It is promising that such methods have been so successful in reducing smoking rates among young people. We should use the same tactics to tackle childhood obesity.
Raising the costs of junk food alone would not remedy all child health problems related to obesity. Exercise is also a critical step.
Yet if Congress is going to finance SCHIP expansion through a revenue increase that addresses a health problem for children, it should follow the research and include junk food.
David Gray is director of the Workforce and Family Program at the New America Foundation in Washington. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.