Taxing Junk Food Could Stem Obesity Better Than Subsiding Healthy Food, Study Shows

March 2, 2010

( -- One way to stem the rising rates of obesity may be to mimic the successful approach used to decrease smoking: taxes.

A laboratory experiment conducted in the University at Buffalo's Division of Behavioral Medicine showed that lowering the price of healthy foods did not result in "shoppers" improving the of the foods they purchased.

While study participants did select more of the healthier options when they were less expensive, the shoppers used the money they saved on less-expensive healthier foods to buy more of the less-healthy options, results showed.

But when the researchers increased the price of foods such as hot dogs, potato chips and Ritz Bits Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers by adding a 12.5 percent to 25 percent tax, the shoppers reduced purchases of these foods and spent a larger portion of their budget on healthier choices like bananas, tuna and chicken noodle soup.

Results of the study appear in the current issue of the journal .

"Taxing high-calorie-for-nutrient [HCFN] foods had the dual benefit of reducing purchases of these foods while increasing purchases of low-calorie-for-nutrient foods [LCFN] with lower energy density," says the study's first author Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and head of the Division of Behavioral Medicine.

"From a public-policy standpoint, this strategy had the additional benefit of generating significant tax revenue. If policymakers aim to reduce consumption of HCFN foods to control rising rates of obesity, then taxing these foods may be more effective than subsidizing LCFN foods.

"In our experiment, a tax that increased the price of foods by 12.5 percent reduced the total calories purchased by 6.5 percent," adds Epstein. "This resulted in a 12.8 percent reduction in fat calories and a 6.2 percent reduction in calories from carbohydrates."

The study involved 42 lean and overweight mothers, divided 20-to-22 between those with family incomes below and above $50,000 per year, respectively. UB's Division of laboratory was set up to simulate a grocery store. Cards with pictures of more-healthy and less-healthy food and beverage items were arranged in sections according to food category, and prices and nutrient values were printed on the cards.

The participants were given a study income of $22.50 per family member to go on a 2-hour grocery shopping trip. Told to imagine she had no food in the house, each participant set about selecting a week's groceries for her family by selecting the food cards. Research staff collected the cards and recorded the prices and nutritional values.

Each participant went food shopping five times. Research staff set the prices of each item before each task. During one experiment, prices were set based on current prices at a local supermarket. During two tasks, prices on the LCFN foods were lowered, described as subsidies, by 12.5 percent and 25 percent, while HCFN prices remained constant. During another two tasks, prices of HCFN were raised by 10 and 25 percent, respectively.

Selections from each shopping task were analyzed for nutrient values and costs of the chosen foods. Analysis showed that "taxing" less is a potential strategy to lower consumption of those products.

"The results of this study suggest that the goal would be to develop a strategy that simultaneously reduces purchases of less healthy foods while increasing the purchase of healthier options," says Epstein. "Public health initiatives aimed at modifying food purchasing by manipulating prices may be an important addition to clinical interventions to prevent or treat ."

Epstein and colleagues currently are planning a study combining taxes and subsidies in an expanded experimental grocery store, as well as studies on how individual differences, such as impulsivity, influence response to changing prices.

Explore further: Price of lower-calorie foods rising drastically, UW researchers find

Related Stories

As prices rise, find ways to trim grocery bills

May 5, 2008

The rising cost of gas, diesel fuel and other forms of energy can affect the price of many other things that we purchase, from milk and bread to coffee and sugar. It can be a real challenge to keep family food costs manageable ...

Healthy Foods more Expensive than Junk Foods

October 17, 2008

( -- Healthy foods are rising in price faster than their less healthy alternatives. This is the finding of research published in the October issue of Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

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 ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 02, 2010
Question: what do the potato chip and 100% Vitamin C soda people think about this?!
1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2010
It's NOT the junk food alone, it's the fructose, as in high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is meant to be consumed as fruit w/ the fiber. That is how we evolved.
Fructose in large quantities is toxic just like ethanol (alcohol) is. It is rapidly converted to fat in the liver and that is deposited through out the body.
HFCS or sucrose is in essentially all the prepared or processed foods we eat these days, including the junk foods. Read the labels. So, the increase in the consumption of fructose over the past 30 yrs parallels the increase in obesity over that time.

So, taxing junk food will do little to combat the obesity epidemic but will put more money in the pockets, oops, I mean hands of politicians to fund ever more of their wasteful, wacky programs that garner them votes.
not rated yet Mar 02, 2010
If the goal is reducing obesity and the method is increasing taxes then why not just tax fat people directly?

Annual BMI measurement to calculate how much you owe.
not rated yet Mar 02, 2010
So what happens when governments get more addicted to 'sin' taxes and spend even more money than they have?
Advocates of such plans never consider the consequence of what the government will do with the taxes.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2010
A very similar article was posted last week. and I believe that at least two of you commented on that one, so I'll weigh in again, as well.
The real issue here is that that the people who are most disproportionally affected by this epidemic of obesity(and other diet-related disease) are lower income. This, in far too many cases, equates to NO INSURANCE. Their lifelong medical care is therefore PAID FOR BY TAXPAYERS.
I don't really care if I have to pay an extra 25 cents for a coke or a snack. As this article points out, though, higher prices for "junk food" equate to lower sales to these same people(by and large) and may thus serve to mitigate at least this one longterm effect of poverty in terms of taxpayer liability, DIG?
Stop whining about big government and "Socialists" trying to f**k up your "Capitalism".

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.