Can the government change how we eat?

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A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) which found that the prices of fast food and fresh fruits and vegetables directly impacts levels of youth obesity. Not exactly revolutionary stuff – the connection between food prices, household income and health and weight outcomes has been proved conclusively time and time again. Compared to most of the previous studies that have had similar findings, there is only one major difference, i.e. while most research up until now has focused on BMI as the sole indicator of obesity, the study by the NBER uses a measurement of percentage body fat – a much more reliable measure of current and future health problems.

What I found most interesting about the NBER’s research though was its conclusions in regards to taxation and subsidies of unhealthy and healthy foods respectively. The authors, Grossman, Tekin and Wada argue that ‘A good deal of caution is required here [i.e. in the implementation of taxes]. Taxes are blunt instruments that impose significant welfare costs on individuals who consume food in moderation.’ True. Simply increasing the prices of fast-foods and the like is, on its own, not an ideal approach and their policy suggestion of better nutrition education programs is a good one. But further than education, the implementation of a junk-food tax, in conjunction with the subsidisation of healthy foods could potentially make a huge difference and this is barely touched on in the paper. Theoretically, the earnings from such a tax could be funnelled towards this subsidisation. I’m happy to leave the economic breakdown to the economists, but it surprises me that Grossman et al did not explore such an option in more depth. It just seems like such a missed opportunity in the context of their work. While their argument that parental input is likely to hold just as much, if not more sway than governmental interventions, such a taxation/subsidisation program would surely have a similar impact on their purchasing choices.

If anyone is aware of any such studies that look at the taxation/subsidisation method, please let me know! I’d be really keen to read them. I’m aware of the failed ‘fat tax’ in Denmark, and the failed soda ban in New York (slightly different again, I’ll admit) but I’d love to see if there have  been any successful examples of governments changing their citizens eating habits.




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