Mix of policy options needed to discourage junk food consumption and encourage healthy lifestyles
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — With obesity rates still on the rise in North America, governments are under pressure to take stronger regulatory steps to curb rising health-care costs for maladies such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
A recently published series of papers from the University of Alberta examines some of the options available for policy makers seeking to promote healthier eating, including zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants, mandatory menu labels, higher taxes on junk food or even incentive-based approaches for pursuing a healthier lifestyle.
“Since eating and physical activity behavior are complex and influenced by many factors, a single policy measure on its own is not going to be the magic bullet,” said Nola Ries, of the university’s Faculty of Law’s Health Law and Science Policy Group. “Measures at multiple levels — directed at the food and beverage industry, at individuals, at those who educate and those who restrict — must work together to be effective.”
Ries cautions that finding a solution to such a widespread, complex problem will require a multi-layered approach. In one of her papers, she explaine that several countries have already adopted tax measures against snack foods and beverages, similar to “sin taxes” placed on alcohol and tobacco.
Although Canada has imposed a goods and services tax on various sugary and starchy snacks (no tax is charged on basic groceries such as meats, vegetables and fruits), Ries points to other countries such as France and Romania, where the tax rate is much higher. She says taxing products such as sugar-sweetened beverages would likely not only reduce consumption (and curb some weight gain) if the tax is high enough, but also provide a revenue stream to combat the problem on other levels.
“Price increases through taxation do help discourage consumption of ‘sin’ products, especially for younger and lower-income consumers,” said Ries. “Such taxes would provide a source of government revenue that could be directed to other programs to promote healthier lifestyles.”
Ries said putting nutrition-value information where consumers can see it will enable them to make better food choices. She says many locales in the United States have already implemented mandatory menu labeling. Even though some studies say menu labels do not have a significant impact on consumer behavior, nutrition details might help some people make more informed eating choices.
“Providing information is less coercive than taxation and outright bans, so governments should provide information along with any other more restrictive measure,” said Ries. “If a more coercive policy is being implemented, it’s important for citizens to understand the rationale for it.”
Some programs designed to create more active citizens, such as the child fitness tax credit, do not seem to have the desired effect. Yet, Ries said offering incentives for living healthier and exercising more may have a greater impact on getting people active.
She points to similar programs used for weight loss and smoking cessation, which had a positive effect on behavior change, at least in the short term. More work needs to be done to establish an enticement plan with longer-term effects, one that may incorporate points accumulated for healthy types of behavior that could be redeemed for health- and fitness-related products and services.
She said investing money into more direct incentive programs may be more effective than messages that simply give general advice about healthy lifestyles.
“Instead of spending more money on educational initiatives to tell people what they already know—like eat your greens and get some exercise—I suggest it’s better to focus on targeted programs that help people make and sustain behavior change,” said Ries. “Financial incentive programs are one option; the question there is how best to target such programs and to design them to support long-term healthy behavior.”