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SSB Taxes: Ineffective, But Better Than Nothing

JAMA Pediatrics is out with a new study on the weight outcomes for teens after implementing sugar sweetened beverage taxes in Mexico. Spoiler alert: the authors found no effect overall. Given this disappointing result the researchers moved on to subgroups and found a small but statistically significant (p<0.01) association between the taxes and weight outcomes for girls. Sorry, boys, there’s nothing for you here. Nonetheless, you’ll find no hint of disappointment in the discussion of these results or the editorial alongside this research. SSB taxes may be ineffective, but apparently, they’re better than nothing.

The editorial in JAMA Pediatrics is downright effusive, glossing right over the null effect:

“This study adds to the growing evidence of SSB tax benefits. It is now well documented that SSB taxes raise SSB prices and reduce SSB purchases. Importantly, this study is among the first to show that tax-induced price increases are associated with reductions in excess weight, especially for adolescent girls.”

Health Reporting More Objective Than a Scientific Journal

Writing in MedPage Today, Kristen Monaco deserves credit for a more objective report on this study. She wrote that taxes on SSBs in Mexico “hardly made a dent in childhood obesity,” with no effect in boys and “slightly more of an effect in girls.”

But, of course, that kind of objectivity is unacceptable to “thought leaders” in public health who have already decided that SSB taxes are a great way to reduce obesity. Research is merely a tool to generate support for what you know in your heart is right. The editorialists explain:

“SSB taxes are win-win policies that reduce purchases of unhealthy beverages and raise revenue that can be reinvested in communities impacted most by health and social inequities. Documenting health benefits will further strengthen the case for widespread SSB excise tax adoption.”

Modest Effect? Raise the Taxes Higher

It is interesting to note that this research suggests much higher taxes might be necessary to have a robust effect on weight outcomes. A mere ten percent tax was not enough. So the editorialists suggest going for a tax of 20 to 40 percent. In this way of thinking, higher taxes will produce even more revenue to reinvest for the benefit of the disadvantaged communities disparately affected by obesity.

If the intervention under consideration was not SSB taxes, but a vaccine, the discussion of these results would unfold in a very different way. Scientists would face the fact that what they have is not working as intended. So they would need to come up with something better.

If “thought leaders” in public health really want to overcome obesity, they will bring more objectivity about what’s not working. They will need more curiosity about what might work better.

Click here for the study in JAMA Pediatrics, here for the editorial, and here for the reporting by Kristen Monaco.

Nothing on TV, photograph by Robert Couse-Baker, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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December 14, 2021

One Response to “SSB Taxes: Ineffective, But Better Than Nothing”

  1. December 14, 2021 at 8:29 am, Allen Browne said: