First tobacco taxes, then sugar taxes. Is salt next?

Salt shaker
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Now that Philadelphia has joined Berkeley, California, in levying a tax on sodas and other sugary beverages, regulators may now turn their attention to other ways of getting Americans to eat healthier. Maybe including a surcharge on salt?

In a recent blog post, Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Institute noted that governments have used taxes for years as a tool to regulate consumption of unhealthy products such as tobacco, and now they're hoping to achieve the same result with sodas.

"What about a salt tax?" Gleckman asked. "By raising the price, the government might encourage producers to find other herbs or spices to flavor prepared foods and substitute for high levels of salt."

Though a salt tax isn't being seriously considered in the U.S., it is gaining traction in other parts of the world. Hungary has such a levy, and New Zealand is considering one. Other countries attack salt usage indirectly such as the "junk food" tax in Mexico. Chile last year became the first country in the world to require warning labels on foods that are high in salt, fat and sugar.

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But in the U.S., creating a salt tax that would appease the scientific community and find enough political support in a gridlocked Washington wouldn't be easy.

For one thing, salt can't be eliminated entirely from people's diets. Humans need a certain amount of sodium so that the body can perform basic functions such as excreting urine through the kidneys. The food industry, which has been cutting back on its use of sodium in recent years, also wouldn't look too kindly on such a tax. Lori Roman, the executive director of the Salt Institute trade group, denounced the idea as "crazy."

"It would be among the worst policies that I ever could imagine to tax something that people must have to live," she said.

Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, associate professor of international health and director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said medical experts would argue about where to set a salt tax.

"It's worth exploring," he said. "There certainly should be a conversation about it."

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration released draft nutritional guidelines that encouraged people to reduce their average sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, from the current average of 3,400 milligrams. The salt industry has denounced the proposal as "tantamount to malpractice and inexcusable in the face of years of scientific evidence showing that population-wide sodium reduction strategies are unnecessary and could be harmful."

The average American consumes about 50 percent more salt than experts recommend, according to the FDA, a notion disputed by the Salt Institute's Roman. Studies have indicated that the "safe range" of sodium consumption is between 3,000 and 6,000 milligrams, she said.

"When you drop below 3,000 milligrams, there is a host of negative health effects including an increase in heart attacks and deaths," she said. "The government alarmism on salt is completely misplaced."

Regulators have tried various strategies over the years to get people to reduce their sodium intake, including through food labeling. Officials in New York City require chain restaurants to post warnings on their menus for items that are high in sodium. Although the heart disease rate has fallen 38 percent from 2003 to 2013, it remains the leading cause of death for Americans, costing more than $316 billion in expenditures and lost productivity.

"If you take a closer look at many items, they have a lot more salt than you realize," said Dr. Lee. "People really don't think of regular bread as a source of salt, but if you check the labels you can actually get to your daily limit fairly quickly."