To tax or not to tax … that is the question.

By Adriana Selwyn

The as-yet unsolved epidemic of obesity continues to take its toll globally. In response, governments are exploring solutions to this complex problem. One popular approach: food taxation. The target: soda. Undoubtedly sugar-sweetened beverages are a problem. Will taxing them really have a positive impact?

In the past, taxation has been very effective in reducing tobacco use, and moderately effective with alcohol control.1 Food however, is far more complex, and the same measures that worked for other health risks in the past are unlikely to achieve success with food. Recent data confirm why. A study published in JAMA highlights the importance of 10 major dietary contributors to cardiovascular disease and diabetes-related deaths in the United States. Here is the list:

  • High sodium
  • Low nuts/seeds
  • High processed meats
  • Low seafood omega-3 fats
  • Low vegetables
  • Low fruits
  • High sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Low whole grains
  • Low polyunsaturated fats in place of carbohydrates or saturated fats
  • High red meats, unprocessed

What is clear from this study is that there is no one dietary factor that stands out as being responsible. Soda is on the list, but not at the top.

While soda taxes are well-intentioned, and taxes can lead to industry innovations to change product portfolios for the better, they address only one piece of the puzzle. Moreover, it is not yet clear if these taxes lead to better health. What is needed to ensure a healthier population are comprehensive approaches that encourage overall healthy dietary patterns. For example, giving people access to fresh produce, making healthy foods the default options, ensuring that healthy food is affordable, making small portion sizes the norm, and incentivizing food manufacturers to reformulate their products and make them healthier.

The Vitality HealthyFood® program, which provides cash-back rebates on healthy food purchases at the supermarket, has been shown to change people’s shopping behaviors with people increasing their purchase of healthy foods and decreasing that of unhealthy foods. We must look to novel and comprehensive approaches like these to change people’s dietary habits in order to see the impact on health.

Adriana Selwyn, Vitality Senior Health Strategy Specialist committed to creating healthier environments to keep people  happy and disease-free, tennis fan, avid home cook and Europe lover.  

  1. Halabi, S. (2015). The Balance Between Regulation and Private Sector Initiative. In Securing Healthy and Sustainable Food in Food and Drug Regulation in an Era of Globalized Markets. Academic Press.


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