Lawmakers and nutritionists agree that they want to enact policies to help Americans improve their diet. What they can’t agree on, however, is how exactly to go about accomplishing that goal. Nutrition policy remains controversial, as lawmakers have proposed everything from bans on large sodas to restrictions on what low-income families can purchase with food stamps.
Cornell University researcher David Just, Ph.D. thinks his research may offer a way forward. He says that policymakers should reconsider imposing restrictions and taxes on junk food. Instead, they could pursue positive policies that reward people for making healthy choices, which he thinks will serve as the most effective impetus in steering people toward better options.
Just, a behavioral economist, recently conducted a study during which he followed 173 people who were asked to select meals that had undergone price changes for various reasons. The subjects’ choices ultimately depended on why the price of the item changed. If the food in question was discounted for its health benefits, demand increased. On the other hand, if researchers framed a price increase as a tax on unhealthy food, demand among those items increased.
This study, recently published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, followed the collection and examination of past public policy that aimed to curb junk food consumption. Just, who analyzed the findings with Cornell Food and Brand Lab and Ohio State University, said that the results highlight the need for less combative alternatives in improving the American diet that require more buy-in from all parties involved. At a time when experts project obesity surpassing tobacco as the leading cause of cancer in the United States, Just says time is of the essence.
“When trying to lead people to healthier foods, you can either take away options to push people what you want them to do, or you can encourage them,” Just, a professor at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, told ThinkProgress. “When we take the first approach, the people most in need tend to push back and make things worse. With taxes and bans on soda, people didn’t move as much as they would have if we would have taken the more empathetic route.”
Just’s findings add to other studies that have found beverage taxes do little to affect behavioral change and reduce obesity rates. While the authors in those studies suggested increasing the tax, they acknowledged that it would be more effective to remove sugary drinks from school cafeterias and other venues altogether. Just said that consumers often rebel against efforts to change their diet if there’s no presence of healthier options.
Perhaps an understanding of consumer choice would have helped inform former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who attempted to pass a ban on large sugary drinks that the city’s highest court blocked from being implemented last year. The proposal counted among a host of aggressive public health policies — including increased regulations on tobacco products — that Bloomberg vehemently defended as part of an effort to create a healthier city. Not many agreed with his style, however. The mayor’s effort sparked rebellion as far as Mississippi — a state with one of the highest obesity rates in the country — where officials enacted an “anti-Bloomberg” law that would prevent its counties from putting similar regulations in place.
However, Bloomberg’s defeat didn’t discourage lawmakers in other jurisdictions to push through similar public policy. For example, Berkeley, CA successful enacted a soda tax of its own — the first in the country — through a ballot measure, a process that involved voters.
But successfully using legislation to encourage a healthy lifestyle goes far beyond building consensus. For the more than 49 million Americans who live in low-income rural and urban areas with high food insecurity, the affordability and proximity of healthy food are the primary determinants of their diet. It’s likely that they may not respond well to taxes on unhealthy food, not necessarily out of a disdain for officials controlling their diet, but rather out of fear of losing the only source of sustenance they can afford — even if it’s not the healthiest choice.
The Navajo Nation — which has an obesity rate triple that of the national average — is currently dealing with this conundrum as unemployed tribe members reel from a junk food and soda tax that many say has placed additional financial constraints on their lives. Even with the removal of a 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables, people in most need of nutritious food options cannot partake without driving off the reservation. In essence, the only closely available food they have comes from convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
That’s why Just said that policy makers and food manufacturers may find greater success in changing diets by working to make healthy food more accessible. The federal government has tried to fulfill this goal through its Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which includes $500 million in grants to businesses that set up shop in food deserts. Recent studies, however, have shown that changing diet also means taking into account one’s education level and food preference. Just recognized this reality, citing school lunch studies that have found proximity and affordability are the leading influences of one’s choice.
“We found better results in just making healthy food more visible in schools and grocery stores,” just said. “There was a ten percent increase in the sale of produce which by itself may not be completely impressive. The grocery stores wanted to roll it out because it was so profitable. This shows that there is some way to solve the food desert problem that takes some intervention because it’s not just about behavior. Affordability and lack of choice are huge problems.”