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Can a junk-food tax save the Navajos?

The US' biggest Native American tribe has taken an unprecedented move to overcome one of its biggest existential threats. But the fat-tax may not be the silver bullet many in the reservation are hoping for.

In less than a week, the home of the #link:http://www.cspinet.org/nah/xtreme2014.html:Red Robin Monster Meal# will see its first junk-food tax go into effect. But it's not kale-loving Californians or #link:http://www.everydayhealth.com/pictures/top-healthy-food-trends/##02:teff-chewing# Brooklynites that are leading the charge. Instead, it's the latest effort of the Navajo Nation to combat a diabetes epidemic that's posing an existential threat to the single largest reservation in the US.

The 2-percent sales tax, passed last November as part of the #link:http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2014/nov/Healthy%20Dine%20Nation%20Act%20of%202014.pdf:Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2014,# targets products with "minimal-to-no-nutritional-value," including chips, soda, fried foods, and desserts.

The act comes on the heels of #link:http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/PDF%20Files/2014/Naataji%20Nahat_a%20Hane%20-%202014%20Spring%20Council%20Session.pdf:another amendment signed into law last year,# which abolished a 5-percent tribal sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables. The authors, local grassroots organization Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), wrote the legislation with an eye to existing tobacco and alcohol levies, as well as sugar and so-called "fat taxes" imposed in several European countries, including France and Hungary.

The DCAA estimates that the duty will raise at least $1 million (920,000 euros) in annual revenue, with the added income flowing into a Community Wellness Development Projects Fund.

A forgotten people?

While health activists have been quick to hail the law as a victory, it's also a sad reminder of the challenges facing one of the US' most neglected minority communities.

Some 150 years after the US government forced the tribe to relocate to the desolate desert area straddling stretches of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Nation remains mired in economic misery. The median household income is less than half the national average; nearly 1 in 2 over the age of 25 lives under the federal poverty line; and the unemployment rate is more than 8 times higher the US mean.

Compounding the territory's woes are abysmal graduation rates and alarming health issues. #link:http://www.pih.org/country/navajo-nation/about:According to health organization Partners in Health,# roughly 20 percent of the 300,000 Navajo members suffer from diabetes. Another 75,000 are pre-diabetic, a study by the Indian Health Service found, which also concluded that obesity complicated nearly one-third of all Navajo pregnancies in 2011. The health care costs are staggering.

"At an average, it costs over $13,000 per person annually to treat diabetes. The cost for treating diabetes related complications can exceed $100,000 per person," #link:http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2014/nov/Healthy%20Dine%20Nation%20Act%20of%202014.pdf:according to the findings.#

Fast food as far as the eye can see

According to activists, junk food is one of the main culprits.

"Our communities are food deserts," Janene Yazzie told food policy site CivilEats, after moving from New York back to Lupton, Arizona. Her claim is backed by a 2014 report from the Diné Policy Institute, which found that there are just 10 full-service grocery stores scattered across the reservation's 27,425 square miles (71,000 square kilometers) - an area almost the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined.

This leaves healthy food out of reach for most of the tribe's members.

"We essentially had no choice but to fall back on a diet heavy in terrible, highly processed foods, along with everyone else," Yazzie told CivilEats.

And what little there is of nutritional value is often unaffordable: "a frozen pizza might cost a couple of dollars, but a bag of apples runs upwards of $6.50," noted CivilEats.

Fat-tax no cure-all

But whether or not a junk-food tax is the silver bullet many are hoping for remains to be seen. Similar efforts elsewhere in the US suggest otherwise.

In 2008, Los Angeles imposed a fast-food ban in an effort to combat alarming obesity rates and other nutrition-related diseases plaguing poor, predominantly minority neighbourhoods across South L.A.

Surprisingly, #link:http://www.rand.org/pubs/external_publications/EP50830.html:a study published by the RAND corporation# this year, showed that the obesity rates there actually jumped 12 percent from 2007 to 2012, and that the increase was indeed "significantly larger...than elsewhere" in the metropolis.

And in 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg drew nationwide scorn, when he imposed a ban on sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces (473 ml), as part of his high-profile push to promote public health amid soaring diabetes rates. A year later, the state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, arguing that the mayor had overstepped his authority - unleashing a wave of Schadenfreude among disgruntled New Yorkers, who had decried Bloomberg for trying to create a "nanny state."

While it's too soon to tell if the 2-percent tax is enough to change consumer behavior, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Nez told US magazine Mother Jones that it has already sparked a conversation within the tribe "about how to take better care of yourself, how to return back to the way we used to live, with fresh produce, vegetables, and fruit along with our own traditional unprocessed foods."

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