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Making produce cheaper could be more effective than making sugary drinks more expensive.

June 19, 2017

In the fight to use public policy to improve people’s health, so-called “soda taxes” – charging a premium for sugary drinks – have almost certainly gotten the most hype. But a new study suggests that when it comes to saving lives, encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables by lowering the cost of produce could prove far more effective than discouraging people from consuming sugary drinks with a tax.

In a study published earlier this month in the journal PLOS Medicine entitled “Reducing US cardiovascular disease burden and disparities through national and targeted dietary policies: A modelling study,” researchers looked at how five different types of health initiatives might affect cardiovascular disease mortality over a 15 year period. The scenarios were: 1) a 10 percent national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, 2) a 10 percent subsidy on fruits and vegetables, 3) a 30 percent subsidy on fruit and vegetables for SNAP participants only, 4) a national mass media campaign seeking to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and 5) a combination of all four policies.

Though all four of the individual models showed lowered mortality rates, simply lowering the cost of fruits and vegetables was by far the most effective, with researchers estimating that it could result in 150,500 fewer cardiovascular disease-related deaths in the US by 2030. Meanwhile, the 10 percent bump in the price of sugary drinks only cut deaths by 31,000 over the same period. Interestingly, a mass media campaign by itself was even lower, resulting in just 25,800 fewer deaths. Apparently, these researchers’ models showed that people were more likely to think with their pocketbooks than their heads.

Still, Dr. Piotr Bandosz, one of the paper’s co-authors from University of Liverpool and the Medical University of Gdansk, stressed that all the models showed benefits and were worth considering. “Policies effectively increasing fruit and vegetable consumption or reducing sugar sweetened beverage consumption might powerfully reduce cardiovascular disease mortality and disparities,” he said. “Furthermore, a combination of these policies could be even more powerful.”

Of course, any modeling study has its limitations, something the authors admit. But another major issue that jumps out is that, as the paper states, “we did not model or compare the cost-effectiveness of each proposed policy.” In their most basic execution (not considering any secondary financial impact), subsidies cost the government money whereas taxes bring money in. That alone could help explain why the latter policy is currently more popular than the former, regardless of what the actual health outcome could possibly be.