More than a year after a 2 percent tax on unhealthy foods, snacks and drinks was approved on the Navajo Nation Reservation, tribal communities can now begin submitting their ideas for health and wellness projects supported by the tax revenues.
This week the Navajo Nation Council Budget & Finance Committee gave final approval in a 3-1 vote to establish guidelines to distribute the revenues as part of the Healthy Diné Nation Act, a law that went into effect in 2014. The tax works in tandem with a policy that made healthy foods tax-free on the reservation to combat high rates of obesity and diabetes among adults and youth.
Health advocate Denisa Livingston with the volunteer-based Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, which proposed the tax five years ago, said it’s been a long road, but one worth pursuing for the health of Native Americans.
“This is something that shows grassroots efforts can actually have that power to achieve change in our communities,” Livingston said. “This really puts the finishing touches on what the group has been working to accomplish for the past few years.”
According to the Office of the Navajo Tax Commission, approximately $1 million to $1.3 million in tax revenue has been collected so far.
Those funds will support eligible community wellness projects, including food and fitness classes, biking or walking trails, parks and recreation facilities, youth clubs, and garden and clean water initiatives, among others.
The tribe was among the first governments to enact taxes on unhealthy foods and drinks. In May, a 1.5-cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages was approved in Philadelphia. Its revenues will be distributed across various sectors, including the city’s general fund, early education initiatives, and to repair aging park and recreation facilities.
In the same month that the Navajo Nation’s tax was approved, Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and sugary drinks in November 2014.
Navajo Tax Commission Executive Director Martin Ashley said it’s too early to say what impact the tax will have on health, but he expects to see results in the coming years.
“I believe the tax has some potential,” Ashley said. “It’s supposed to be a discouragement from junk food.”
A 2012 report published in Health Affairs estimated a nationwide tax of at least a penny per ounce could cut sugary drink consumption among adults by 15 percent.
If those people instead drank water and other healthy drinks, researchers estimate that could prevent 26,000 premature deaths, 95,000 coronary heart events and 8,000 strokes while saving more than $17 billion in medical costs, according to the report.
Any one can propose to initiate or improve an existing community wellness project. Once a chapter resolution in support of the project is passed, an application must be submitted to an Administrative Service Center within the Navajo Division of Community Development for further approval.
Although the process to distribute funds has been streamlined, Livingston said there’s still work to be done in changing attitudes toward healthy foods on the reservation.
“It’s not the tax that’s causing the damage — it’s the unhealthy food that’s causing the damage,” Livingston said. “ We really need to change our perspective on healthy foods and refocus on accessing healthy foods and making that available to our community.”
Rethinking healthy behaviors, coupled with creating opportunities for physical activity, are two areas Livingston said she has noticed Navajo youth becoming more involved in.
17-year-old Kelly Charley is a member of the Nataanii Youth Council at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico. She said the tax is a positive way to encourage people to live healthier, balanced lifestyles.
“For me, I grew up in a household that said you have to be balanced, and my dad would always make me go run in the morning,” Charley said. “I used to hate it so much, but later on I realized that I needed that basis of physical fitness to really succeed in the classroom and to be awake, alert and open-minded to whatever was going to be taught that day.”
Charley said over the years she’s realized that health and wellness can show the strength of a person, but change has to start from within.
“Being Navajo, we have this legacy of being strong, resilient and independent, and if we want to continue that and push forward, we need to start taking care of ourselves,” Charley said. “That starts with caring for our bodies.”