Taxing unhealthy foods may encourage healthier eating habits

February 24, 2010

Recently, the Obama administration called for a total ban on candy and soda in the nation's schools. States are beginning to impose "sin taxes" on fat and sugar to dissuade people from eating junk food. Pricing strategies may well be a key to changing behavior, but others favor subsidies over punitive taxes, as a way to encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The thought is that if you make it cheaper, people will eat more of it, more expensive and people will eat less.

Decades of research argues that consumers are not always so rational and the two strategies have never been tested head to head, to see which one most effectively alters calorie consumption. So, psychological scientist Leonard Epstein at University of Buffalo, decided to explore the persuasiveness of sin taxes and subsides in the laboratory.

Epstein and colleagues simulated a grocery store, "stocked" with images of everything from bananas and whole wheat bread to Dr. Pepper and nachos. A group of volunteers —all mothers— were given laboratory "money" to shop for a week's groceries for the family. Each food item was priced the same as groceries at a real grocery nearby, and each food came with basic nutritional information.

The mother-volunteers went shopping several times in the simulated grocery. First they shopped with the regular prices, but afterward the researchers imposed either taxes or subsidies on the foods. That is, they either raised the prices of by 12.5%, and then by 25%; or they discounted the price of healthy foods comparably. Then they watched what the mothers purchased.

To define healthy and unhealthy foods, the scientists used a calorie-for-nutrition value, or CFN, which is the number of calories one must eat to get the same nutritional payoff. For example, nonfat cottage cheese has a very low CFN, because it is high on nutrition but not on calories; chocolate chip cookies have a much higher CFN. The researchers also measured the energy density- essentially calories- in every food.

The results, just published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that taxes were more effective in reducing calories purchased over subsides. Specifically, taxing unhealthy foods reduced overall calories purchased, while cutting the proportion of fat and carbohydrates and upping the proportion of protein in a typical week's groceries. By contrast, subsidizing the prices of healthy food actually increased overall calories purchased without changing the nutritional value at all. It appears that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and and treated the family to less healthy alternatives, such as chips and soda pop. Taxes had basically the opposite effect, shifting spending from less healthy to healthier choices. On the basis of this laboratory research, the scientists conclude that subsidizing broccoli and yogurt- as appealing as that idea might be to some- may be unlikely to bring about the massive weight loss the nation now requires.

Explore further: When the label says 'low fat,' calories can pile up, study says

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2.5 / 5 (4) Feb 24, 2010
How about instead of punishing the citizens with more taxes, you punish the companies who utilize cheap, low-quality (unhealthy) products and practices to make their food, and offer tax credit for grocery purchases of healthy items.

I just cannot fathom the logic in President Obama's program. Oh, wait; that is because there isn't any.
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 24, 2010
It seems that this strategy would amount to the same thing- the "sin tax" would raise the shelf price of these "unhealthy" foods, and reduce the amount purchased by the moms, and the tax revenue would be used to subsidize the pricing of the "healthy" foods, so that moms would buy more of it.
You would think that the loss of sales would be sufficient punishment for the producers of the "unhealthy" foods. It is a fact that Americans eat way too much junk food- keeps em' fat, stupid, and sick- which drains everyone-junk food junkie or not.
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2010
How about you don't punish anyone because it is against what america is about. I thought history taught us that control is messy or impossible. You have to make people control themselves. Give a person knowledge and if they still choose unhealthy it is their right.
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2010
It seems that this strategy would amount to the same thing- the "sin tax" would raise the shelf price of these "unhealthy" foods, and reduce the amount purchased by the moms, and the tax revenue would be used to subsidize the pricing of the "healthy" foods, so that moms would buy more of it.
Because sin tax worked well at stamping out Cocaine, Opium, Alcohol, and Tobacco use in the 1900's.....
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
This is not a religious issue, so please avoid the word "sin". If people want to eat 2,00 calorie burgers, they need to contribute toward their future health care cost to treat type 2 diabetes, etc. I prefer to see this as a "pay as you go". What is the problem with that?
1 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2010
No problem with "pay as you go" but I'll do it myself since I probably won't see a dime from my taxed candy purchases.
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2010
Given that the consumers of these foods are disproportionally represented in the socioeconomic group that makes it impossible for them to be able to purchase the healthcare to moderate the negative effects of their dietary choices, it seems imminently fair to me that some effort be made to shift the costs of that care off the taxpayer's back. If you buy it intelligently(small amounts of poison) there is little cost to you personally. The more someone buys, the more they contribute to offset the cost of health consequences -again- most likely to themselves. Do you oppose or support tobacco taxes?

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