Can taxing 'bad' foods improve public health?

chocolate bar
CC BY 2.0 Francois Schnell

When citizens are unable to stay healthy, cash-strapped governments are forced to consider drastic measures.

"Nothing is certain but death and taxes," as the famous phrase goes, but imagine if one of these could prevent -- or, more accurately, postpone -- the other? A new task force thinks this is entirely possible.

The task force, which includes many prominent political leaders, ministers of finance and health, economists, and members of the World Health Organization, would like to find a way to tax foods and beverages known to hurt humans, in an effort to improve quality of life. In other words, substances like candy, soda, energy drinks, alcohol, and cigarettes would become more expensive, and thus more difficult to obtain.

No doubt the objections will fly. Nobody likes being told what to do. But the numbers speak for themselves. Non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are responsible for 70 percent of deaths globally, and many of these are aggravated by sugary, ultra-processed foods.

Poor health is undermining the human population, and despite knowing for decades that the combination of a high calorie/low movement lifestyle is a death sentence, it has not changed the habits of the majority of people.

So what is a government supposed to do? In the case of the United Kingdom, the National Health Service is in crisis because it cannot deal with the sheer volume of health issues driven, at least in part, by unhealthy lifestyle choices. In the United States, millions of people cannot afford health care for problems brought on by a poor diet.

The aforementioned task force is one solution to the problem, and its members believe that taxing 'bad' foods can be a force for good. It has worked with cigarettes. The group says, "Tobacco-tax increases are the single most effective policy to reduce tobacco use." The same goes for alcohol:

"Nearly all studies...found that there was an inverse relationship between the tax or price of alcohol and indices of excessive drinking or alcohol-related health outcomes."

So, why not tax sugar, too? The evidence against sugar is piling up. It has been linked to increased risk of heart disease and skyrocketing levels of obesity and diabetes. A sugar tax has been effective in Mexico, where a 1-peso tax on every litre of soda dropped consumption by 5.5 percent; within two years, it was down 9.7 percent.

Many people will doubtless disagree with this approach, but an article in the Atlantic puts the situation into a global perspective. When lower-income countries adopt Western-style diets, obesity rates triple, and doctors say diabetes is becoming a pandemic. Many of these nations lack the resources to cope with such a health crisis, requiring an urgent solution.

Writing for the Atlantic, Annie Lowrey quotes Thomas Bollyky, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations:

"There’s a set of lower-income countries, like Bangladesh and Ethiopia and Myanmar, that will go in the span of 40 years from basically having no burden of noncommunicable diseases to having a similar burden as the United States or the United Kingdom. That’s three or four times as fast as high-income countries had to make that epidemiological transition."

Taxes could be a preemptive solution to this crisis. They are "super-efficacious, both because prices matter particularly for younger and poorer people and because taxes are educative."

As for the lower-income people who would struggle the most with paying higher prices, nutrition expert and economist Barry Popkin argues it could also help them the most:

"The poor do pay more, but they’re the ones who can’t afford health care. They’re not being treated much at all in terms of chronic disease — diabetes is not something you can treat cheaply."

Or, as Nick Cohen put it in The Guardian this past weekend, referencing those who find "temporary respite" in the pleasures of fat and sugar, "Perhaps we should offer them better lives rather than snatch away the few comforts they enjoy."

While I am in favor of raising prices on substances that we know are damaging our bodies, I do think that there needs to be another side to this pro-health movement -- and that must be improved access to healthy food. If we take away the cheap calories from low-income families, there must be something to replace it. The same governments enacting the junk food taxes must provide vegetables and fruits, whether it's subsidizing food boxes for families or corner-store greengrocers or developing community gardens in parks. Cooking and gardening should be incorporated into school curricula to teach kids how to use these new ingredients, skills that they could pass on to their parents.

While The Atlantic article says that there's still much data to be collected about the full, long-term effects of taxing certain foods, there will be opportunities to do so, as the governments of Thailand, Hungary, and Vanuatu have all taken recent measures to improve their citizens' health. We'll see if it helps.

At this point, it really can't hurt.

Can taxing 'bad' foods improve public health?
When citizens are unable to stay healthy, cash-strapped governments are forced to consider drastic measures.

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