"Today it's cigarettes," said R.J. Reynolds in a June 1994 newspaper ad that criticized proposals to sharply raise tobacco taxes. "Will high-fat foods be next?"
Anti-smoking activists have traditionally dismissed this sort of slippery-slope argument. To suggest that anti-tobacco measures might pave the way for attacks on cheeseburgers and ice cream, they said, was just plain silly.
What was once a reductio ad absurdum is now a serious policy proposal. In its first issue of 1998, U.S. News & World Report presented a "Twinkie tax" as one of "16 Silver Bullets: Smart Ideas to Fix the World." The article drew on the work of Kelly Brownell, a Yale obesity expert who has helped make the concept of better eating through taxation respectable.
Six months after R.J. Reynolds tried to scare people with the outlandish prospect of a tax on fatty foods, Brownell endorsed the idea on the op-ed page of The New York Times, citing the precedent set by cigarette taxes. Asserting that "environment is the real cause of obesity," he recommended censoring McDonald's commercials and "taxing foods with little nutritional value."
Brownell has since repeated these proposals in interviews and articles. The impact can be inferred by comparing the recent glowing treatment of a junk food tax in U.S. News to press coverage the idea received just a few years ago.
A 1994 story in The San Diego Union-Tribune raised the possibility of "heavy taxes…affixed to all junk food" but quickly reassured readers, "No one is proposing anything so drastic yet." A 1993 article in The Hartford Courant, headlined "Fat Tax? Fat Chance!," concluded with a quote from an economist who said such a levy "wouldn't pass the laugh test." Who's laughing now?