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New evidence that junk food taxes would lead to weight loss ... maybe

March 8, 2010 |  6:21 pm

Pizza Finally, we may have scientific evidence in a top-notch medical journal supporting the common-sense idea that if junk foods such as soda and pizza were subjected to a sin tax – like cigarettes and alcohol – people would consume them less and slim down as a result.

Researchers tracked the diet and weight of 5,115 people who participated in a 20-year study designed to identify risk factors for cardiovascular disease. That information was linked to data on food prices, which fluctuated over the two decades of the study.

The researchers zeroed in on four food items: soda, whole milk, pizza and hamburgers. They figured that when prices rose, demand would fall. And that’s exactly what they found for soda and pizza – a 10% price hike was associated with a 7% decrease in soda consumption and an 11.5% cutback on pizza.

Other studies have linked changes in price with changes in consumption, but they failed to close the loop by showing that people who ate less junk food actually slimmed down. This report did – in a fashion. The researchers were able to link price, calories and weight in a formula that predicted a $1 increase in the price of soda would cause people to consume 124 fewer calories per day and lose 2.34 pounds.

Using this model, they concluded that an 18% tax on soda would cause people to shed 5 pounds over the course of a year. The results were published Monday in Archives of Internal Medicine.

This has got to be the most persuasive study to date showing that a sin tax on soda or junk food would actually have the desired effect -- and not just aggravate people who care to indulge in an occasional root beer (or threaten their sense of personal freedom). Soda tax advocates may embrace it as proof that their policy goals are justified.

But keep in mind – this is only a model, and models don’t necessarily reflect the real world. For instance, it is often said that 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat. But endocrinologists and other scientists understand that if you permanently reduce your daily caloric intake, you won’t keep losing weight – your body will simply adjust to its new energy level. This is why it can be so difficult for dieters to keep pounds off. It’s also a good reason to question the conclusion that an 18% soda tax would make the average American 5 pounds lighter.

What’s more, models are only as good as the data that’s plugged into them. Not to impugn the CARDIA study (which tracked those 5,115 volunteers), but these folks consumed an average of 2,972 calories per day at the start of the project and reduced that to an average of 2,403 20 years later, according to lead researcher Kiyah Duffey of the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Kudos to those study participants, but do they reflect what’s happening across the United States as a whole? A 2004 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1971 and 2000, daily caloric intake rose 22% for women and 7% for men.

Senior researcher Barry Popkin, a nutrition epidemiologist who heads UNC’s Interdisciplinary Obesity Center in Chapel Hill, said the results would be more persuasive if they were based on better data linking a wider array of food prices, dietary intake, body composition and other variables for specific individuals. That might take a good while – for the Archives study, the team spent five years matching price data to each person for each moment in time. In the meantime, the continuing debate on the merits of soda food taxes will have to proceed without hard scientific evidence.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times

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Comments (38)

I am sure that many would lose weight, if they started to consume less junk food. The caloric value here is not that important because junk food is junk and it damages our health, so regardless of calories people would improve their health by cutting down on sodas and other junk food.

There should also be another tax relief for those who make healthy choises: such as ogranic fresh veggies, fruits, meats, etc.

This scientist, Barry Popkin, and his fellow researchers are doing the work that will force the government's hand on a soda tax. As a scientist, I can tell you that the easiest way to test if a soda tax will make a difference in weight reduction is to actually implement one and see if it changes anything in a group of soda drinkers.
They are inferring from data instead of being able to test an outcome and I think they are doing a great job.

Karen, You have got to be kidding me!!! Anyone who believes taxing food to control consumption belongs on another planet or at least deserves to live in communist China. You are insane if you think targeting a couple of food items will solve the obesity problem in this country. Why not look at it from another angle and get out of the business of trying to control peoples lives. If we didn't give free health care to people who don't take care of themselves they might just take better care of their health.

We can tax people to steer their behaviors in different directions but the people who seek large amounts of sweets will inevitably find them elsewhere.

Will making someone 5lbs lighter change their health outcomes or happiness? We don't know. Who's job is it to pursue a given person's happiness for them anyway?

Such a tax would open a slippery slope of regulation and impose on freedom of choice. Would diet soda be taxed as well? OF COURSE IT WOULD!!

they should at least try it out!

I propose we tax all garbage food first and then start a five year study.

About time.

While we're thinking up ways to make this tax a reality, let's also think about an "environmental tax" too. Where ever I walk, the litter I see 9/10 times is one of three things: 1. McDonald's/fast-food wrappers, 2. Cigarette butts/empty packs, 3. Coffee cups!

Don't forget cigarettes and beer

Come, come now, my fellow citizens, let's not be modest and skirt around the real issue: let's tax people for being overweight!

Implement a Junk food tax? The government has been subsidizing corn, wheat and soybeans for years. This has made price of foods with high fructose corn-syrup (soda, candy), hydrogenated fats and corn fed meats (fast food) artificially low. Why do you think junk food is so cheap? A better approach would be for the Government to shift their agriculture subsidizes to healthier food stuffs, and make healthy foods cheaper

So the government should impose a tax on foodstuffs they are already subsidizing?

Pizza is a health food - not a junk food. I've lost over 20 pounds on the pizza diet. Plus my schlong has grown over nine inches in the last six months; health food indeed.

You can't limit a person's freedom to eat junk food. It would be more effective if a scale was placed at every restaurant and grocery store, and if a persons BMI was excessive, then they pay an extra tax per pound based upon the standard BMI...say $2 p/pound?? Healthcare costs would truly go down and the state and fed budgets would be balanced. Problem solved!

politicians love to find new taxes to fund more overspending

In the United States of America are you actually saying to me that we are going to arbitrarily pick what is "junk" food and tax it and that we are going to point at people who do not conform to a "ideal physiological makeup" and say they MUST change.

I believe if you study history you will find other examples of enforcing ideals. Take a look at the early to mid 19th century in a region called Germany.

Where do we draw the line? What is considered "junk" -- to whose taste do we cater?

People will claim that its all rhetoric - oh it will only be truly "bad" food that will get this tax and we are not really ostracizing or oppressing anyone.

and the line toes further, and the taxes go higher, and the list gets longer, and the desired criteria for weight, height, body fat ratio, blood pressure, glucose count, and countless other factors becomes more stringent.

Personally I wonder if we have forgetten what it means to be American and what Personal accountability versus Oppression and Conformity truly means.

another sad day

And just who would define "junk food?" Pizza can be relatively healthy and balanced. A "protein only" diet can mess you up. Occasional sodas are harmless. This idea only perpetuates the "good food - bad food" dichotomy that is pernicious and false. The real keys are balance, moderation, and activity.

An article examining the effects of the Governments involvement and distortion of markets would have been a much more interesting and informative read. Hmmm the artificial lowering of junk food prices due to the implentation of agricultural subsidies, has lead to a rapid increase in American obesity rates.

The biggest sin is advertising all this crap food on TV, then advertising a drug to treat heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol right afterwards. Then the drugs to treat the adverse side effects from those that cause more illness and disease and limb replacements. The list goes on and on it's vicious cycle and leads to the domino effect. So, I suppose go ahead and tax the people they wouldn't know the difference anyway.

I learned in Economics 101 over 20 years ago that if you raise the price of something, the consumption will go down. We should indict these researchers for robbery and force them to repay the funds they made on this "research". Or better yet, I would like to sign up for a government run commune where they can dress me, feed me, and do whatever they want to me.

Why do people continue to propogate the myth that the ONLY reason that a person is overweight/obese is due to either overeating or eating the "wrong" things? I know personally of people who are skinny as a rail who live on nothing but pop, McDonalds, candy, etc...they can eat all they want and not gain a pound. Yet there are some who do their very vest to eat right, exercise and STILL can't lose the weight! Some people have medical conditions that will put on weight like PCOS, uterine fibroids, Cushings Syndrome, etc. Taxing food is not the answer! Nor is punishing those who are larger than average.

But I heard the meatheads making those electric car charging stations are going to put some in front of SlowDeath, er...Fast Food know, laden with salt sugar and fat.....nothing like ENCOURAGING reckless behavior, then getting the taxpayers to PAY FOR THEIR OBAMA HEALTHCARE! Obesity, diabetes, clogged arteries, stents, quadruple bypasses (clinton & cheney - OH! what a pair!), dialysis......oh the JOY! Yes....a 500% TAX would be the most appropriate + another 250% for the litter.

Just tax all carbohydrates, and you'll see weight loss. Bread, low-fat yogurt, orange juice, granola bars, cereals, low-fat milk - tack on a penny for each gram of carbs, and maybe you'll start saving lives.

The problem is that people don't quite realize that all carbohydrates are junk food, even the so called "healthy" ones.

Can I also have the government burp me and wipe me because I can't wait for the nanny government to take care of me. This is insane are we going to tax people because they aren't going to the Gym everyday, are we going to tax movies and books that raise your blood pressure. Where does it stop? Is that what government is now, taxing things that they don't want or what they want you to do? Hey Government state out of my life and let me choose. I'm not your lab rat.

I am morbidly obese and have lost 76 pounds so far using a popular weight loss plan. A year ago, I would have gladly purchased my sin food, even if it was higher taxed! Losing weight requires a lot more lifestyle changes, than simply not buying fast food or junk food.

This whole thing is getting out of control. Who are the junk food police? Who can positively determine what is junk food and what is not? This is total BS. It's not about caring about people and what they's about the government making more money and sucking the consumer dry. Food of any kind should never be taxed on the consumer, and neither should clothing or transportation.
THe FDA and the CDC and all the other socalled health police do absolutely nothing but waste our money satisfying the food producers who really ARE at fault for producing such crappy non nutritious foods. Tax THEM, fine them, whatever it takes to put decent food on the market. If the HFCS and GMO foods and other chemically laden foods weren't on the shelves, people would choose something else.

No government mandated solution will cause us to lose weight. If we want to lose weight, we must take control of our health. Luckily, thanks to online fitness tools such as, its never been easier to get in shape, stay in shape, and lead a healthy lifestyle.



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