A bill about to be introduced in the New York State Assembly is aimed at battling childhood obesity. Not only would it impose a 1% tax on junk foods and the video games that conspire to keep them seated, but it would also tax television commercials for junk foods targeted at kids.
The proposed legislation hasn't yet had a formal airing. The bill was being processed at the state Capitol and would be available within a day or two. But it's already causing a mixed reaction, with plaudits from anti-obesity organizations that would benefit from the tax's proceeds and complaints far and wide from New York's business community in general and advertising in particular.
Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Brooklyn Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, said the bill would tax TV commercials promoting non-nutritional food to children under 18. The funds would go to organizations trying to prevent childhood obesity, which health experts say is a growing health problem affecting one out of five children and lead to diabetes and high blood pressure. Ortiz said the idea came out of a series of hearings he held throughout New York on dealing with childhood obesity: Those hearings caused him to consider taxing the items and companies responsible for encouraging children to make bad nutritional choices.
"It's not a fat tax," Ortiz said.
Ortiz said the reaction so far to his proposal has been mixed, with some supporting what he's trying to do for New York's children and some who aren't as supportive of taxing TV commercials, video games and junk food. Count among the latter an advertising trade group and one of New York's business organizations, which both say they will do what they can to spike the bill once it starts winding its way through legislative channels.
Clark Rector, senior vice president of state and governmental affairs at the American Advertising Federation, said that while the organization considers the issue of childhood obesity worth raising, the AAF doesn't think taxing advertising is the solution. He said that a tax like this brings up all sorts of issues that aren't really answered. Would a spot that is being aired nationally but that appears in New York on broadcast, satellite or cable be subject to tax? How do you classify children's programming, at a specific time of day or type of programming?
"You get into a lot of, I think, administratively unanswerable questions. The devil's in the details on these things, especially when he's talking about targeting the tax, products or specific types of programming," Rector said.
Rector said that to his knowledge, there aren't any taxes on advertising currently in effect in the United States. Florida passed a tax on all advertising in the late 1980s and found that a lot of advertisers cut their ad budgets in the state. Eventually the tax was repealed.
Matthew Maguire, director of communications at the Albany-based Business Council of New York, said his group doesn't think much of the proposal either.
"As anybody who buys or sells ads in New York state can tell you, the last thing New York needs from an economic point of view is a new tax," Maguire said. "There's no good argument that imposing a new burden on advertisers or media or businesses would have any real benefit and there is ample evidence that it wouldn't do any good."
Maguire said there's already a lot of information available on the importance of good nutrition and lots of exercise. Why more?
"Apparently the main idea here for these taxes is to generate information about the dangers of cholesterol, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle, an expanding waistline and so on," he said. "It is already impossible in our society to go anywhere or do anything and avoid this information. We are bombarded on a daily basis with information about health concerns. If our waistlines are expanding, it's not because of the shortage of information."
Besides, Maguire said, what would constitute junk food? He said that past legislatures have argued incessantly about what is junk food and what isn't for taxing purposes. There isn't any reason to expect that the going would be any easier this time around, he said.
"It is a cute publicity-worthy idea that would be the devil to implement in any meaningful way," Maguire said.
The bill isn't going anywhere this legislative session, which ends today. But a spokesman for the New York Senate's majority Republicans said that while it wasn't going to come up for discussion this time around, it's tough to say what will happen in future sessions.
Ortiz said he's seen reaction like this before. It was the same kind of reaction he received when another one of his bills was first introduced into the Legislature. But he stuck to it and a ban on cell phones while driving is not only law in the state but it's also held up as a model for similar bans nationwide. Ortiz hopes that this bill could, in the future, spark similar efforts against obesity in other states, too.
"Maybe it won't happen this session, but it will happen someday," Ortiz said.
The Business Council's Maguire said that his organization isn't taking the legislation for granted. It plans to oppose the proposal's provisions, respectfully but forcefully.
"One of the things that we've learned is that ideas that emerge in one year to snickers and bemused media coverage can hang around for four or five years and all of the sudden grow legs and walk. Assemblyman Ortiz is a respected member of the Legislature who has energy and who has shown an ability to be persuasive and get things done," Maguire said.