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Food Prices and Obesity: Evidence and Policy Implications for Taxes and Subsidies

Powell LM and Chaloupka FJ. The Milbank Quarterly, 87(1): 229-257, 2009.

Context: Pricing policies have been posited as potential policy instruments to address the increasing prevalence of obesity. This article examines whether altering the cost of unhealthy, energy-dense foods, compared with healthy, less dense foods through the use of fiscal pricing (tax or subsidy) policy instruments would, in fact, change food consumption patterns and overall diet enough to significantly reduce individuals’ weight outcomes.

Methods: This article examined empirical evidence regarding the food and restaurant price sensitivity of weight outcomes based on a literature search to identify peer-reviewed English-language articles published between 1990 and 2008. Studies were identified from the Medline, PubMed, Econlit, and PAIS databases. The fifteen search combinations used the terms obesity, body mass index, and BMI each in combination with the terms price, prices, tax, taxation, and subsidy.

Findings: The studies reviewed showed that when statistically significant associations were found between food and restaurant prices (taxes) and weight outcomes, the effects were generally small in magnitude, although in some cases they were larger for low–socioeconomic status (SES) populations and for those at risk for overweight or obesity.

Conclusions: The limited existing evidence suggests that small taxes or subsidies are not likely to produce significant changes in BMI or obesity prevalence but that nontrivial pricing interventions may have some measurable effects on Americans’ weight outcomes, particularly for children and adolescents, low-SES populations, and those most at risk for overweight. Additional research is needed to be able to draw strong policy conclusions regarding the effectiveness of fiscal-pricing interventions aimed at reducing obesity.

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