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Navajo Nation Council Approves Junk Food Tax to Fight Obesity

The Navajo Nation Council on Thursday approved a 2-percent increase in sales tax for junk food sold on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, becoming the first tribe in the country to install a so-called “junk food tax.”

The council approved the bill, known as the Healthy Diné Nation Act, with a 12-7 vote on the final day of its regular winter session. The bill was one of two passed Thursday that lawmakers and health care advocates hope encourage Navajos to give up junk food in favor of fresh, healthy food.

The Healthy Diné Nation Act increases the sales tax to 7 percent on sweetened beverages and snacks low in essential nutrients and high in salt, fat and sugar. This includes chips, candy, cookies and pastries. The bill also states that the revenue collected from the tax hike will be deposited into a special fund to develop wellness centers, parks, basketball courts, trails, swimming pools, picnic grounds and health education classes.

Bill sponsor Danny Simpson, who represents eight chapters in the Eastern Navajo Agency, said the tax increase will help promote healthy living and bring awareness to the diabetes epidemic on the reservation.

“Each one of us here has a relative that’s diabetic, and we face that fact every single day,” he told council members prior to the vote.

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.”

Passage of the Healthy Diné Nation Act began two years ago as a grassroots effort from members of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance who studied rates of obesity and diabetes on the reservation and decided existing prevention programs weren’t doing enough.

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“Even though there was a lot of education, people seemed to not be listening,” said Gloria Ann Begay, project manager for the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance. “So we looked at policies like the tobacco tax or the seat belt laws and we decided that taxing junk food might discourage the purchase of it.”

Begay estimates that between 55 and 85 percent of all food available in grocery or convenience stores on the reservation can be considered junk food. Store owners argue they are simply selling what the people want to buy, she said.
“Store owners claim it’s supply and demand,” she said. “They’re just giving us what we want.”

The tax does nothing to curb the purchase of junk food in border towns, where many residents already shop, Begay said. Some people drive as far as 200 miles round-trip to get to a grocery store in towns like Farmington or Gallup, N.M., or Flagstaff, Ariz.

Calling the tax a “first step,” Begay said she hopes it acts as a deterrent in check-out lines. Proponents of the tax also hope it persuades store owners to carry more healthy food so low-income residents who can’t afford to drive to border towns aren’t forced to shoulder the extra financial burden.

The 2-percent increase in sales tax for junk food expires at the end of 2018 unless the Navajo Nation Council votes to extend it.

The council also approved a second bill Thursday to eliminate the existing 5-percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables, water, nuts, seeds and nut butters sold on the reservation. The purpose, according to the bill, is to “diminish the human and economic costs of obesity and diabetes on the Navajo Nation.”

The vote on this bill was 17 to 1. Navajo President Ben Shelly has 10 days to sign the bills into law.

Both bills cite staggering statistics on the cost of living with diabetes – it can cost one person an estimated $13,000 per year to treat the disease and $100,000 or more per year to treat complications related to diabetes.

The Indian Health Service reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives experience diabetes at 2.3 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Obesity also can lead to increased risks of heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, respiratory or reproductive problems, sleep apnea and some types of cancer.