Proposed Use of Tax Code to “Protect” Food Consumers Is Bad Policy and Unconstitutional

EnglishChip_lowGuest Commentary

by Chip English, Davis Wright Tremain LLP

Childhood obesity is a substantial problem worthy of serious discussion.  Unfortunately, legislators also appear to see it as an issue worthy of unsound and unconstitutional legislative action.  On July 25, 2013, Representative DeLauro, together with Representatives Lee, Defazio, Clay and Grijalva, introduced the most recent example of this food police problem.   H.R. 2831 would “deny any [IRS tax] deduction for marketing directed at children to promote the consumption of food of poor nutritional quality.”  The proposed legislation is both vague and overbroad and, more importantly, is an unconstitutional content, speaker, and audience targeted “tax on knowledge.”  H.R. 2831 cannot withstand First Amendment scrutiny.  Moreover, the proposal raises equal protection and arbitrary and capricious government action issues because government Speech Police would determine which marketing is “directed at children” and which food is of “poor nutritional quality.”

HR 2831 would amend the Internal Revenue Code to deny a broad array of travel, goods or services, gifts and other promotional expense deductions associated with “marketing directed to children” (persons under the age of 18)  of “poor nutritional quality” foods.  The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, would determine which foods are of poor nutritional quality by considering which foods are “inconsistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans under section 301 of the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. § 5341).”  Leaving aside the policy question of whether the IRS, which is still dealing with determinations of which organizations qualify for charitable organization status, should be involved in determining which foods are of poor nutritional quality, government determinations of what marketing is “directed at children” and what food products are “inconsistent” with Dietary “Guidelines”, will inevitably be arbitrary and capricious because those terms are vague and ambiguous. Continue reading “Proposed Use of Tax Code to “Protect” Food Consumers Is Bad Policy and Unconstitutional”