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Updated Feb 12, 2014 - 9:21 pm

Navajo Nation president blocks tax on junk food

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation president has vetoed a proposal to
impose an additional tax on chips, cookies and sweetened beverages on the
country’s largest reservation, but the legislation could be resurrected later.

President Ben Shelly supports the idea of a junk food tax as a way to combat
high rates of diabetes and obesity among tribal members and encourage healthy
lifestyles, his adviser Deswood Tome said Wednesday. But Shelly said the
legislation isn’t clear on how the tax on snacks high in fat, sugar and salt
would be enforced and regulated, according to Tome.

“There are a lot of supporters out there for the tax, and again, the president
wants a plan that works,” Tome said. “He’s asking the (Tribal) Council to take
back this initiative and redo it so that the burden is not on the government to
implement a law that is going to create hardship, especially in the collection
of taxes.”

The Dine Community Advocacy Alliance and tribal lawmakers had been positioning
the Navajo Nation to become the leader in Indian Country when it comes to using
the tax system to press tribal members to make healthier choices.

School districts across the country have banned junk food from vending
machines. Cities and states have used taxes and other financial incentives to
encourage healthy choices, according to the National Conference of State
Legislatures, but not all the efforts have been met with overwhelming support.

The legislation in the Navajo Nation Council did not have a smooth ride either.

Denisa Livingston of the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance said the group worked
for two years to get tribal lawmakers to pass the legislation. Dine is the
Navajo word for “the people.”

Livingston said American Indians are more likely to suffer from diabetes and
other chronic health problems than the average American.

She estimated that imposing an additional 2 percent tax on junk food sold on
the Navajo reservation would result in at least $1 million a year in revenue
that could go toward wellness centers, community parks, walking trails and
picnic grounds in tribal communities. The tax would have expired at the end of

“Every one of our Navajo families has someone who is suffering from chronic
disease,” she said. “This is the initiative we wanted to take because we see
our families suffering.”

About 14 percent of the people in the area of the Navajo Nation have been
diagnosed with diabetes, according to the federal Indian Health Service.

American Indian and Alaska Native adults are twice as likely to be diagnosed
with diabetes as non-Hispanic whites, and Native children ages 10 to 19 are nine
times as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the agency said.

Opponents of the tax in Navajo communities in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah
argued it would burden consumers and drive revenue off the reservation.

Shelly also vetoed a companion bill to eliminate the tribe’s 5 percent sales
tax on nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables. Tome said Shelly would like lawmakers
to revise the legislation to address his concerns.

The Tribal Council can override Shelly’s vetoes with a two-thirds vote of its
24 members. Livingston said she would pursue that option with lawmakers.


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