Tax Unhealthy Foods?  

March 17, 2010

Medical researchers supposedly have credence, so when they publish study results will people tend to listen?

Medical researchers supposedly have credence, so when they publish study results will people tend to listen? 
A new study in the March 8 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA/Archives journal, disclosed a new revelation about America’s dietary habits:  a 10% increase in price was associated with a seven percent decrease in the amount of calories consumed from soda and a 12% decrease in the amount of calories consumed from pizza. A one-dollar increase in the cost of soda or pizza was also associated with a lower overall daily calorie intake, lower body weight and an improved insulin resistance score, and a one-dollar increase in the cost of both soda and pizza was associated with even greater changes in these measures.
The 20-year-long study (1985 to 2006) of 5,115 adults ages 18 to 30, conducted by Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues led the research team to estimate an 18% tax on these foods would result in a decline of roughly 56 calories per person per day. These declines would result in five pounds of weight loss per person per year, and less risk of obesity-related diseases, they said.
So is it possible to tax the nation into a thin state? We doubt it. The researchers say government “policies to alter the price of less-healthful foods and beverages [we call that taxes] may be one possible mechanism for steering U.S. adults toward a more healthful diet.” In fact, another London-based study found in various countries that when there was a discount on healthy foods, the savings went to buying more “junk foods.”
We think this is an oversimplication of the complex relationships people have with food. The Lempert Report understands this is basically a study that links pricing to consumption behavior.  What’s missing in their case is how differently consumers relate to foods today vs. the time this lengthy study began in 1985—so much more education on healthy eating, so much more pressure to eat smarter, the expansion of organic food choices, and more disclosure about how foods actually come to market and what they contain. Also missing is a discussion of the impact that intermittent recessions have had on food spending during the time of the study, which ended in 2006.
These elements would have enriched the discussion emanating from this report. It’s indisputable that America is fatter than ever, despite knowing more about the foods and beverages they consume, yet we urge education (from supermarkets and CPG) as part of the solution, along with more innovative product formulations, packaging and influential messaging in advertising and in stores to steer people toward healthier diets.
The last thing people need now is extra expense. Rather, they need the nation’s food makers and food distributors to step up and own their significant role in this problem of America’s obesity.