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Food taxes and subsidies could combat obesity

By Sarah Hills , 10-Oct-2008

A subsidy on healthy food could help tackle obesity and other conditions which can be prevented through nutrition strategies, according to the American Dietetic Association.

The idea of a subsidy is just one policy option which could be adopted, as the ADA is calling for reform of the US health care system, including strategies to prevent obesity rather than ways to treat it.

Tara Gidus, spokesperson for the ADA, told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “We already subsidize farmers to keep them in business, but maybe we do need to do more on a consumer level to motivate them to choose healthier foods.

“A subsidy would help to make produce and other healthy foods less expensive. Taxing unhealthy food is another option, but I am afraid that it would cause such an upheaval of attention that it would never pass.”

She added that food manufacturers should be providing healthy options to consumers but consumers also need to take personal responsibility, and government can only do so much to encourage them.

Gidus said some companies are taking the initiative offering solutions to controlling portions and reducing calories, fat, sodium, and sugar in their foods. Others are ignoring the problem and continued to develop new foods void of nutritional value and rich in calories, excess fat, sugar, and sodium.

However she added that food companies have spent a lot of money trying to come up with healthy foods that taste good and when people do not purchase them, “they lose money and are not motivated to try again”.

Statistics show nutrition and diet are associated with seven of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, cancer and stroke.

An estimated 25.6 percent of US adults reported being obese in 2007, compared to 23.9 percent in 2005 which is an increase of 1.7 percent, according to a study published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report last month.

Preventative medicine

The ADA, which boasts of being the nation’s largest association of food and nutrition professionals, claims “prevention is generally overlooked” in the US health-care system.

Registered dietitian Evelyn Crayton, who is a member of ADA’s board of directors, said ADA wants prevention to play a more balanced role in the health-care system and the public should be equipped - before they become patients - with information, motivation and skills they can use to be healthy.

She added: “Many of the most costly disabling conditions can be prevented through nutrition strategies. With proper nutrition support, many complications can be averted or delayed.

“Federal attention to public nutrition and investment in nutrition care, education and research is essential.”

Policy options

A report published last month in the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) publication Amber Waves, called Obesity in the Midst of Unyielding Food Insecurity in Developing Countries, looked at a variety of health policy options for governments.

It noted that Scandinavian countries reduced coronary heart disease between 1976 and the 1980s by providing subsidies for the purchase of healthy food items, such as fish.

Also, during the 1990s, Singapore reduced child obesity through a combination of changes in school diets and increased fitness and physical activity programming.

It said that the new challenge for developing countries was to identify effective policies that could prevent repeating the obesity experience of Western countries.

Nutritional education was likely the key in terms of reaching out to consumers and it said that nutritional education of children can play a vital role in influencing dietary habits.

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