Calls for 10% subsidy on fruit and veg to cut obesity rates

Calls for 10% subsidy on fruit and veg to cut obesity rates

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Dr Javier Rivas
Dr Javier Rivas, lead author of the economic study

Forget taxing unhealthy sugar-laden food and drinks, instead subsidise fresh fruit and vegetables to help shift the eating habits of overweight and obese people, says new research.

According to a new economic study from the University of Bath, a 10% subsidy on fresh produce would do more to change people’s diets than introducing levies on unhealthy products.

The report’s authors estimate a 10% subsidy on fruit and veg over the course of a lifetime and across Britain’s population could save up to £7.2 million in the long run.

And a cash incentive for those who do proactively change their lifestyles and hit certain health targets would have an even bigger effect on changing eating habits. However, implementing such a scheme would be too expensive.

The researchers tested the effectiveness of taxes versus subsidies and cash incentives at reducing unhealthy food consumption in the study which was recently published in the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Set against a backdrop where rising obesity and declining physical activity levels in Britain’s population means healthcare practitioners and policy-makers are continually investigating ways to encourage healthier lifestyles.

According to the University of Bath, healthy food options, including some fresh produce, can cost up to four times more as some unhealthy alternatives, and through the study, they wanted to better understand the persuading factors that could change consumer choices.

One practical example given is, a bag of apples which today costs an average of £1.50 would be cut to £1.35, while a bag of carrots could be reduced from £1 to 90 pence. Aside from fresh fruit and vegetables, the researchers suggests similar subsidies for some fish and lean meats.

“Our results suggest that a subsidy of around 10 per cent on products strikes the best balance between shifting behaviours to encourage healthier eating and saving the taxpayer money in the long-run,” says lead author, Dr Javier Rivas from the Department of Economics.

“Growing levels of obesity pose a crippling problem for our health service now and the in the future. Policy-makers need to weigh up these new proposals against the long-term costs of overweight and obesity to the health service.”

Using a complex mathematical model, researchers predicted likely outcomes of different scenarios for the US as well as UK. Findings for both counties suggest subsidies “strike the best balance” between effectively changing a person’s behaviour in the long term and the monetary benefits to society that are associated with that.

Rolling out the scheme would cost approximately £991 million.

The study – ‘Cash Incentives and Unhealthy Food Consumption’ –  was a collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Bath and Surrey and funded by the institutions. It is only one of a few to have examined the effectiveness of different government policies targeting consumers’ diets. The research team would now like to see their economic model trialled by policy-makers.

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