Targeted taxes on sweetened beverages and policies that strengthen nutritional standards for meals and beverages at schools may be effective tools for decreasing the purchase of sweetened drinks and reducing obesity among children living in poverty, according to two studies led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Both studies were published in Health Affairs.

In the first study, researchers analyzed the influence of an excise tax of 1.5 cents per ounce on sweetened beverages (sugar or artificially sweetened) that was passed in Philadelphia on Jan. 1, 2017. Philadelphia is the largest of the seven U.S. cities and counties that have a tax on sweetened beverages, and, among those localities, it has the highest percentage of racial and ethnic minority groups and people in poverty among its population.

The researchers compared beverage prices and purchases in Philadelphia before the tax’s implementation and one year later. They also looked at comparable data from Baltimore, which does not have a sweetened beverages excise tax. The sample included 134 stores and 4,584 customer purchases.

According to the researchers’ analysis, the tax significantly increased the price of taxed beverages by 1.81 cents per ounce and decreased the volume of taxed beverages sold by 38.9%. Customers shopping in low-income neighborhoods and people with lower education levels purchased slightly less taxed beverages (about 7 fewer ounces) than the overall reduction in the purchase of taxed beverages (about 6 fewer ounces).

The researchers concluded that beverage excise taxes might be an effective policy tool for reducing sweetened beverage purchases among populations at higher risk for sweetened drink consumption.

In the second study, a research team examined the impact of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on child obesity risk. The legislation strengthened nutritional standards for meals and beverages provided through the National School Lunch, Breakfast, and Smart Snacks programs.

The researchers reviewed data for 173,013 youths taken from the National Survey of Children’s Health from 2003 to 2018. While they found no significant association between the legislation and childhood obesity trends overall, they did find significant reductions in obesity risk among children living in poverty—a population that is particularly reliant on school meals. Among these children, the risk of obesity, which had been trending steadily upwards prior to the legislation going into effect, substantially declined each year following the act’s implementation, translating to a 47% reduction in obesity prevalence in 2018 from what would have been expected without the legislation.

The researchers conclude that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s science-based nutritional standards should be maintained to support healthy growth, especially among children living in poverty. They also suggest that policymakers consider strategies to increase participation in school meals programs.

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