When sugary and fatty foods cost more: Do sin taxes work?

WASHINGTON — The dilemma at the vending machine: choosing something calorie laden that instantly hits the spot or something nutritious that we won’t regret later.

Decisions, decisions …

But if one costs more than the other does that influence what we end up digging in to?

Perhaps, and this is why in some areas, so called sin taxes have been added to certain food and drink products.

“These are taxes placed on foods and beverages considered by many experts to be less healthy for us,” Sally Squires, who writes the Lean Plate Club™ blog. told WTOP.

This approach has been tried by some 13 countries or cities, according to the journal Health Policy.

In Denmark, lawmakers put a tax on foods with saturated fat, although that has now been repealed. In Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, a sugar-sweetened beverage tax came into force, although it, too, was quickly rescinded.

Berkeley, California, has had more luck. The city put a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages there in 2014. The measure has been declared a success by a number of health experts, including Dr. Lynn D. Silver, a senior adviser at the Public Health Institute in Oakland.


A study published in February in the journal Public Health Nutrition focused on the city of Philadelphia. It tracked sales of 250 vending machines, from the beginning of 2010 through the end of 2013.

The goal was to see if fewer people would choose food higher in added sugars, salt and unhealthy fat if they cost more.

And the result?

Results showed that healthy snack sales were 323 percent higher following the tax increase on the less healthy options.

However, the total number of snacks sold, both healthy and unhealthy were 17 percent lower after the price hikes.

Healthy beverage sales also increased, but unlike food sales, total sales of beverages did not drop.

If sales are falling, “the question one has to ask is, will vending machine operators want to go along with this,” Squires said.

Making healthier food less expensive

It seems like a simple solution and a new study in the journal Appetite looked at this as an option, according to Squires.

A 25 percent discount was applied to healthy foods in vending machines and the cost of less healthy foods was increased by 25 percent.

A time delay was also added to the vending machine.

“You can imagine people standing there saying ‘where’s my food,'” Squires said.

More than 32,000 items were analyzed. The time delay increased healthy snack purchasing from 40 to nearly 43 percent, the study found.

But the biggest impact was putting a tax on the less healthy snacks plus using the time delay, which boosted sales of healthy snacks to nearly 54 percent from 40 percent, Squires added.

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