Controlling obesity through policy

On February 1, the popular scientific journal Nature published an article that claimed that sugar was a poison and should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco. Naturally, this controversial article erupted into a media storm of contrasting views. When it comes to food, most people would rather have more choice, even if some of the choices are bad for them.


Just a few months ago, U of T professor Guy Faulkner teamed up with researchers from around the world to examine the ways in which obesity can be prevented by economic means. Their work was recently published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.


Obesity is a problem that has entered the limelight in the past decade. North American culture typically promotes an inactive lifestyle and unhealthy food choices that lead to obesity. The authors put together a panel of experts to determine ways in which governments can control obesity through policy.


The authors focussed more on the ways policy could be changed regarding food, rather than physical activity. They argue that implementing general tax credits for physically active people wouldn’t encourage inactive people to exercise; instead, it would be better to target certain populations for subsidies, such as immigrant populations and single mothers.


They go on to explain that obesity is on the rise because it costs less to buy and takes less time to prepare calorie-rich foods. Like most scientists, Faulkner and his colleagues suggest that the practical way to curb obesity is to change the policy at

the root of the problem. They suggest that the government provide subsidies for fruits and vegetables. If fruits and vegetables are available at least as little cost as junk food, more people will be able to buy healthy food. They suggest that fruit and vegetables should even be offered free in schools. They also advise that farmers who grow fruits and vegetables be given subsidies, because these crops are much riskier to grow and depend on for an income than popular products like corn and wheat.


When it comes to taxing soft drinks, Faulkner and his colleagues have mixed opinions. Previous research shows that taxing soft drinks doesn’t lead to a decrease in obesity, because children and adolescents tend to replace soft drinks with whole milk. However, all things being equal, whole milk has more nutritional benefit, so soft drink taxes may not be such a bad idea.


This type of tax wouldn’t unfairly target low-income households, according to the article. The authors suggest that sugar-free diet drinks, diet beverages, and sugar-free juice and milk should be tax-exempt. This could have a huge impact on obesity, but the authors stress that it would take time to make that impact. The larger the tax, the lower the consumption. For every 10% rise in prices, consumption decreases by 8 to 10%. They suggest at least a 20% tax, and advise that the tax be made visible to consumers.


Obesity isn’t going away anytime soon, and the emphasis on healthy eating and exercise has become more public. If we as a society are going to fight obesity and increase our lifespans, the government should do their part and implement better policies for curbing this health disaster and rising epidemic.