The title of this post may seem obvious, but an interesting study has just been published showing that people will choose healthy foods over junk food if the price of the junk is higher. This study shows strong evidence that a junk food tax might help improve overall health, while lowering the obesity epidemic in this country.

The research conducted at the University of Buffalo in New York gave 42 mothers just over $22.00 to spend at a “supermarket” set up in a room at the university and stocked with images of everything from bananas to whole wheat bread to cola drinks and cookies. They were told to imagine that they had no food in the house and they were going to do the shopping for the week to feed the family. They were given the choices of 30 healthy foods, which included healthy beverages, and 30 junk foods, including sodas and other sugary drinks.

The women went shopping five times, the first round having prices on par with what they currently are at local supermarkets. Two times the prices of healthy foods were lowered, and two times the prices of the junk foods were increased. The interesting results were that hiking the prices of junk foods, like what would occur from a so-called “sin tax,” was more effective in lowering overall calories purchased than lowering the prices of healthy foods. Hmmm…you don’t say.

Even more interesting is that lowering the price of healthy foods merely increased the overall calories the women purchased. Wow!

I love this study! First off, although I am a huge proponent of self-responsibility particularly as it relates to health, I do believe that taxing unhealthy behaviors is appropriate. As much as I believe in the live and let live philosophy, in today’s economic and health care environments, peoples’ poor health choices are being paid for by us all. So I think if you want to smoke, smoke, but you’ve got to pay more; want to live off Susie Qs, pay up; boozer for life, no problem, just pay your share. Now obviously, the only way this type of tax would mean anything is if the money would be used to offset health costs. I’ll leave that to policy makers.

But back to the study: Making healthy foods cheaper didn’t lead people to make better choices, they still went for more. In fact, when they saved on broccoli, yogurt, fish and eggs, they just took the savings and bought cookies and chips. Duh!!! So lower food prices obviously are not the answer, not from a health perspective anyway.

“It appears that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and vegetables and treated the family to less healthy alternatives, such as chips and soda pop,” the authors of the study said.

But raising the price of the crap actually led mothers to choose healthy foods–a sad statement on human psychology, but an awesome perspective on the power of economics. In the experiment, taxing junk foods by 10% resulted in the shoppers buying 14.4% less high-fat and sugary foods and drinks. That meant their week’s shopping contained 6.5% fewer calories, the study said.

Well what can I say? When it comes to making health choices surrounding food, Americans are severely addicted to junk, and in my estimation, sugar in particular. Only continuous education (what I’m trying to do here) is going to change that. But a sin tax is certainly a way to combat obesity, particularly childhood obesity which is rising rapidly. And it can also help subsidize health care costs. With a culture so dependent on sugary junk food, we’re going to need every penny we can get.

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