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A Simple Change to Food Prices Could Save Thousands of American Lives Each Year

What are we waiting for?

SCIENCE AF STAFF
28 NOV 2017
 

Heart disease, stroke and diabetes take hundreds of thousands of American lives every year. But that doesn't have to be the case. Sticking to a healthy, well-rounded diet is one of the best ways to prevent cardiometabolic diseases (CMD). So how can we get Americans to eat better and live healthier?

 

A first-of-its-kind study suggests subsiding healthy foods and taxing unhealthy foods could help prevent a large number of CMD deaths.

Researchers from Tufts University began by pouring over national data sets and homing in on the consumption of seven types of food: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, red meats and sugary drinks.

The findings reveal if the prices of all seven dietary items were altered by 10 percent each, such a measure would save up to 23,000 deaths per year. And if the prices were altered by 30 percent each? The number nearly triples, saving 63,000 lives a year. 

To put that in perspective, that's nearly 10 percent of all CMD deaths in the U.S. 

So much for taxes being harmful.

"We found that modest price changes on healthy and unhealthy foods would help decrease overall cardiometabolic deaths and also reduce disparities between socio-economic strata in the U.S. – the largest changes coming from reducing the prices of fruits and vegetables and increasing the price of sugary drinks," said lead and corresponding author José L. Peñalvo.

In the U.S., those of lower socioeconomic status have a much higher risk of developing CMD, and the imbalance is only getting worse. The new study suggests this discrepancy can be reduced through subsidies and taxation. In fact, the study found price changes can reduce the socioeconomic disparity observed in all types of CMD, and especially in diabetes.

 

Obviously, the findings have important implications for American health and dietary policy.

"The current strategies, such as education campaigns or food labeling, have improved overall dietary habits, but much less so among people with lower socioeconomic status," said senior author Dariush Mozaffarian.

"These results suggest that financial incentives to purchase healthy food, and disincentives to purchase unhealthy foods, can prove successful in meaningfully reducing cardiometabolic disease disparities."

Depending on how and where these financial incentives are applied, the study also suggests policy makers can target certain types of CMD. For instance, diabetes deaths were impacted the most by taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, while stroke deaths were impacted the most by subsidies for fruit and vegetables. 

Even though financial incentives appear to work, convincing the American people is another matter. A 2010 CBS News poll found 60 percent of Americans oppose taxing foods that could be making them sick, and 72 percent believe such a tax would be ineffective in helping people lose weight.

Nevertheless, many other governments have introduced taxes on unhealthy foods to great success. One of the very first was a 2011 Danish tax on saturated fat. Even though it was later rolled back due to controversy, it is estimated to have reduced the national saturated fat intake by 4 percent.

 

That said, even Obama was skeptical about whether such a measure would be accepted by the American people.

"People's attitude is that they don't necessarily want Big Brother telling them what to eat or drink, and I understand that," he said in an interview with Men's Health.

"It is true, though, that if you wanted to make a big impact on people's health in this country, reducing things like soda consumption would be helpful."

Helpful is one word, imperative is another.

The study was published in BMC Medicine.