Taxing unhealthy food may motivate people to buy less

June 21, 2013

According to Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that taxing unhealthy foods and beverages and labeling them as less healthy may motivate some to buy healthier items.

The experiment was conducted in an outpatient area at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, N.Y., where researchers ran a small store for two months in 2011. They set the prices and labeling of snacks and beverages under five different conditions: a baseline with no special pricing or labeling; a “less healthy” label written in red lettering on the price tag; a 30% tax included in the price of less healthy items; a 30% tax on less healthy items plus a “less healthy” label; and a 30% tax with a label and an explanation of the unhealthy item tax. Each condition was tested for several days at the store.

When faced with a 30% tax on less healthy items, consumers were 11% more likely to purchase healthy alternatives. Labeling choices as “less healthy” influenced purchases by 7 percentage points. The 30% tax rate was chosen as an extreme tax scenario, said Brian Elbel, Assistant Professor of Population Health and Health Policy at NYU and lead author on the study. “People responded to price changes,” he said. “However, our method of labeling also had an impact on purchases and may make more of a difference if taxes on unhealthy items are small.”