Health advocates poised for battle on junk food tax bill

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 17, 2014

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The Diné Community Advocacy Alliance is optimistic about the Navajo Nation Council overriding President Ben Shelly's veto of the Healthy Diné Act of 2013 during its spring session next week.

The Healthy Diné Act of 2013 is also known as the junk food tax bill. It was vetoed by Shelly in January, and is one of a myriad of bills the Council will consider during its spring session, the week of April 21-25.

And if the junk food tax bill stands a chance of passing the full Council, one needs to look at the work of the Council's Nabikiyati Committee. Last week on April 10, members voted in favor of the override measures – a two percent sales tax on junk food and the elimination of sales tax on healthy foods.

The president vetoed both of these bills this past winter. Shelly had an issue with the implementation of the proposed new sales tax, saying that the Navajo Tax Commission would be unable to enforce such a new tax rate.

Meanwhile, the Nabikiyati Committee voted 8-3 in favor of the two percent sales tax junk food. The committee also voted 10-2 to allow for the elimination of taxes on fresh foods.

“I believe we have the support, but we want to know who will be in attendance,” said Denisa Livingston, a member of the DCAA, the advocacy group responsible for combating diabetes, obesity and encouraging a healthy livelihood among Navajo citizens on the reservation.

Livingston added that the proposed Healthy Diné Act of 2013 is important for several reasons, including being a public health initiative that mobilizes people to take control of their lifestyle.

Next week during the Council’s spring session, members of the DCAA as well as the First Nations Development Institute will host a series of events, including a rally and press conference, in an effort to pressure the Council to pass the override bills.

The community rally will be Tuesday at 9 a.m. and followed by a press conference after the Council decides on the matter. The second day of a regular session is when Council, according to tribal law, can act on pieces of legislation.

According to Gloria Begay, a member of DCAA, pro golfer Notah Begay III and world-class runner Alvina Begay will be in attendance to support the junk food tax bill Tuesday.

“It’s very important we bring awareness to the Navajo people,” Gloria Begay said, adding that she’s confident the bills will pass the floor.

She explained that members are informed about the issue of diabetes and obesity, considering that DCAA has met with the Council seven other times and its standing committees 11 different times.

“They’re very educated on the issue and didn’t listen to outside influences,” Begay said, referring to the pressure of the Coca Cola North America Group and the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association.

Begay also cited how the override bill is crucial to ending the diabetes epidemic on the reservation. By 2020, 90 percent of Navajo people will be diabetic, said Begay.

“Already, there are two tribes in Arizona with 90 percent or more in their total population being diabetic,” she added.

Other sources of health literature DCAA draws on for support include how American Indians and Alaskan Natives are 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than the general population.

According to the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, there are 25,000 Navajos with diabetes and another 75,000 who are pre-diabetic. A 2011 Sweet Success study, conducted by NAIHS, also reported that 31 percent of Navajo pregnancies were complicated by diabetes, with 89 percent of these women having had pre-pregnancy body mass index in the overweight obese range.

Essentially, the junk food tax bill supports a return to traditional healthy eating and living, with the revenue from the taxes going toward the development of community wellness projects. Those projects include gardens and farms, Begay said.

Council Delegate Jonathan Hale, sponsor of the override bills, thinks that he has support from his colleagues to listen to his plea, but that their vote comes down to how they vote based on their constituency.

“This bill is important for the future generations of our nation to be strong and healthy,” Hale said.

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