Taxing Calories

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Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we have, in the past, examined the debate surrounding taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. Proponents of these taxes believe that by reducing the consumption of these drinks, they help combat overweight and obesity while raising much-needed revenue. Opponents offer a variety of arguments, often asserting that such taxes interfere with the private choices of consumers and that they target only a small sliver of the causes of obesity. Why, some ask, single out beverages — rather than, say, high-calorie fast-food meals?

A recent study put the idea of taxing high-calorie meals to the test, exploring how consumers might react to various levels of taxation. Published in January in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study enrolled 178 university students who were asked to choose a lunch for themselves from a menu, which displayed the prices of all options. They were asked to choose again with prices changed to reflect a tax of 25% applied to high-calorie meal options (such as bacon cheeseburgers and brownies), and then again with a tax of 50% applied to these items. For about half of all participants, menus displayed the calorie content of items as well as their price.

As reported in a Reuters article on the study, participants tended to reduce their hypothetical caloric intake by between 100 and 300 calories when one of the taxes was in place. The effects of the taxes were less drastic, however, among the participants who received calorie counts on their menus; this group tended to consume fewer calories even without any tax. A segment of participants — those who described themselves as diet-conscious when responding to survey questions — did not change their behavior in response to the taxes, choosing lower-calorie options regardless of their prices.

While a 50% tax on junk food may be effective at reducing caloric intake, the study’s researchers acknowledge that such a tax would most likely not be politically viable anywhere. It remains to be seen whether a smaller tax could also have a meaningful effect on calorie consumption. A further limitation of this study is that its controlled environment — using a menu of calorically contrasting options, but no actual food — may bear too little resemblance to the real-world food landscape to accurately predict the outcome of a tax. When presented with thousands of meal items spread across many different restaurants — and with factors such as taste and satiation in mind — consumers may make different choices than the study suggests they would.

What do you think — is the idea of a tax on high-calorie food items worth exploring? Should any such tax take factors other than calories into account, such as freshness or nutrient content? Would you eat less fast food — or similarly unhealthy food — if its price went up by 50%? Whether or not you support the idea of a high-calorie-food tax, what other public initiatives to reduce overweight and obesity would you support? Leave a comment below!

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