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News Asia Pacific

The findings of a new Australian study suggest that taxes on foods containing unhealthy levels of sugar, salt and fat could help curb health care spending and extend people’s healthy life years. (Photograph: gorillaimages/Shutterstock)
0 Comments Feb 22, 2017 | News Asia Pacific

Study estimates increase in healthy life years through sugar, fat and salt taxes

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MELBOURNE, Australia: Modelling the effect of different combinations of taxes on sugar, salt and fat and a subsidy on fruits and vegetables on the death and morbidity rates of Australians, a new study has found that imposing a tax on sugar could avert about 270,000 disability-adjusted life years. In addition, the research estimated that, when combined to maximise benefits, taxes and subsidies could reduce the country’s health care spending by A$3.4 billion (€2.5 billion).

In the Western world, non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dental caries, are mainly attributable to an unbalanced intake of fats, sugars and salt. In order to tackle the burden of those diseases, an increasing number of countries have already implemented or proposed taxes on unhealthy foods and drinks. However, the actual cost-effectiveness of levies and subsidies on certain nutritional items to reduce the burden of diet-induced diseases is uncertain and can only be estimated.

In the current study, researchers at the University of Melbourne simulated the effect of different combinations of taxes on unhealthy foods and a subsidy on fruits and vegetables based on the Australian population of 22 million in 2010. The model analysis set the sizes of the taxes and subsidy such that combined there would be less than a 1 per cent change in total food expenditure by the average household.

The results showed that a tax on sugar had the greatest impact among the taxes simulated. A sugar tax could avert 270,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), the researchers calculated. DALYs are years of a healthy lifespan that are lost to disease. This equals a gain of 1.2 years of healthy life for every 100 Australians alive in 2010, which is a health outcome that few other public health interventions could deliver across the whole population, according to the researchers.

In comparison, a salt tax was estimated to save 130,000 DALYs, a saturated fat tax 97,000 DALYs and a sugar-sweetened beverage tax 12,000 DALYs. As for a fruit and vegetable subsidy, the study was unable to determine an isolated clear health benefit, although it too made for additional averted DALYs and reduced health sector spending, the researchers wrote.

The study adds to growing evidence of large health benefits and cost-effectiveness of using taxes and regulatory measures to influence the consumption of healthy foods. Based on the results of the models, the formulation of a tax and subsidy package should therefore be given more prominent and serious consideration in public health nutrition strategy, they concluded.

The study, titled “Taxes and subsidies for improving diet and population health in Australia: A cost-effectiveness modelling study”, was published online on 14 February in the PLOS Medicine journal.

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