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A recent review investigates whether placing taxes on products like alcohol, tobacco, and soft drinks is an effective strategy for combating chronic disease.

Adding a tax on products like soft-drinks in a bid to discourage frequent consumption has recently made headlines. While alcohol and tobacco have long been subject to taxes, a common argument used to oppose taxing these products is that this policy is regressive; these taxes unfairly single out poorer citizens to pay a larger share of their household incomes for these products, as opposed to richer people.

Consuming alcohol, soft drinks, and tobacco has been implicated in the prevalence of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). There have been suggestions that taxing soft drinks along with alcohol and tobacco may help combat chronic diseases. A recent research news piece published in The BMJ1 summarizes two very important studies on this topic.

Evidence of a link between low socioeconomic status and chronic diseases

The first review, published in the Lancet2 by their taskforce on non-communicable diseases and economics, demonstrated that the burden of preventable chronic diseases associated with tobacco, alcohol, and obesity can be considered regressive. Researchers analyzed 283 studies from countries like Brazil, India, and China. Despite variability in the quality of the studies, the review results provided high-grade evidence of a link between low socioeconomic status and chronic diseases.

Increasing taxes on unhealthy products may benefit low-income citizens

A second study3 also published in the Lancet demonstrated that increasing taxes on potentially unhealthy products could be of greatest benefit for low-income citizens because they typically had the strongest response to changes in prices. The study found that high-income households spend more on and consume more alcohol, soft drinks, and snacks than their low-income counterparts. Data on tobacco patterns were less consistent.

In sum, taxing products like tobacco and soft drinks may prove to be an effective strategy to use in the effort to reduce chronic disease in poor populations, given that these people are affected by unhealthy products more than other populations. The tax could be implemented as part of a larger strategy that includes improved access to healthcare and health promotion measures, including education on nutrition and could bring about significant health gains for the target population, without being unfair towards them.

Written by Sara Alvarado BSc, MPH

References:

(1) Mayor, S. (2018). Taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and soft drinks are fair and produce health gains, review finds. BMJ 361. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k1524
(2) Niessen, L., Mohan, D., Akuoku, J., Mirelman, A., Ahmed, S., Koehlmoos, T., Trujillo, A., Khan, J., and Peters, D.(2018).Tackling socioeconomic inequalities and non-communicable diseases in low-income and middle-income countries under the Sustainable Development agenda. Lancet. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30482
(3) Sassi, F., Belloni, A., Mirelman, A., Suhrcke, M., Thomas, A., Salti, N., Vellakkal, S. Visaruthvong, C., Popkin, B., Nugent, R. (2018). Equity impacts of price policies to promote healthy behaviours. Lancet. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30531-2

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