‘Fat tax’ could improve behaviour

World Health Matters – New Zealand – by Gary Finnegan –  Taxes on sugary drinks and foods high in saturated fats, along with subsidies for fruit and vegetables, could incentivise dietary changes and improve health, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Auckland and the University of Otago, both in New Zealand, reviewed a series of modelling studies which investigated the association between food pricing, consumption and chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Looking at data from 32 studies conducted in high-income members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the authors predict a 0.02% fall in energy intake from saturated fat would follow for each 1% price increase.

A 10% increase in the price of soft drinks could decrease consumption by more than 24% under certain conditions, the study found.

Reducing the prices of fruits and vegetables by 10% could increase consumption by between 2% and 8%. However, the authors said there was some evidence that a ‘fruit and veg’ subsidy might inadvertently lead some people to buy lower quantities of other healthy foods such as fish. It could even give shoppers more disposable income to spend on sugary foods.

The authors also examined how taxing or incentivising certain foods would affect different socio-economic groups. It was found that health outcomes would be more likely to improve for those on lower incomes, thus holding out the promise of using food pricing strategies as a tool for tackling health inequalities.

The findings are timely, if controversial. Several European countries have already introduced taxes on saturated fats, sugars and salt. Finland, for example, has recently passed a levy on sugary drinks and sweets while France has put additional taxes on any beverage containing sugar or sweeteners.

Hungary has also targeted junk foods while the UK is looking seriously at the matter. Denmark introduced a higher rate of tax for foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fats in 2011, only to reverse the move at the end of last year as some consumers began shopping in neighbouring Sweden and Germany.

The authors of the New Zealand study said the success of food pricing incentives as a public health intervention depends on local circumstances.

“It must be noted that the impact of any given food tax or subsidy is likely to differ by country depending on factors such as the type of tax system implemented, health status, co-existent marketing, cultural norms, expendable income, and the social role of food.”

More research on how pricing incentives influence customer behaviour, and in particular how food taxes affect different socio-economic groups, is required before policymakers introduce radical new measures, the authors said.