Study asks: Would a fast food tax improve public health?

Research co-authored by UMMS suggests fiscal food polices are beneficial

By Bryan Goodchild and Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

January 17, 2014

A new public health study suggests populations who suffer disproportionately from obesity, diabetes and heart disease could gain health benefits from policies that put fast food prices beyond their reach.

“As prices of fast food go up, everybody eats a little bit less fast food, but people with fewer economic resources are influenced much more by the price than people who have more resources,” said Catarina Kiefe, MD, PhD.

Dr. Kiefe, the Melvin S. and Sandra L. Cutler Chair in Biomedical Research and chair and professor of quantitative health sciences, is a co-author of “Socioeconomic differences in fast food price sensitivity” published Jan. 14 by JAMA Internal Medicine. Along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina, Kiefe concluded that fiscal policies such as crop subsidies and taxation that affect fast food prices could help those who can least afford an unhealthy diet.

Researchers analyzed 20 years of data collected by the National Institutes of Health’s Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults project. Among socio-demographic groups that have a disproportionate burden of chronic disease, they found greater sensitivity to prices increases, which reduced their consumption of fast food.

“Our findings have implications for fiscal policy, particularly with respect to possible effects of fast food taxes among populations with diet-related health disparities,” they wrote.

“There are ways of influencing fast food consumption that we should be using,” Kiefe explained.

“For example, as a country, our government subsidizes corn syrup, which goes into fast food,” she said. “It does not subsidize the production of fruits and vegetables, so perhaps we should put more resources in subsidizing healthy food such as fruits and vegetables, and fewer into subsidizing corn and corn syrup.”