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NEW YORK -- People are generally more likely to pass on high-calorie food when there is a junk food tax on it -- though it might not matter to everyone, according to a new study.
In a computer-based experiment with 178 U.S. college students, researchers found that the students generally "bought" fewer lunchtime calories when sugary, high-fat fare came with a tax of 25 percent or more. However, when calorie-conscious eaters were given nutrition information on their lunch options, the tax did not seem to sway their decisions, Reuters Health reported.
The study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was led by Dr. Janneke Giesen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands who had the U.S. college students choose a hypothetical lunch from a computer menu on three separate occasions.
Each time, the prices for high-calorie items -- such as bacon cheeseburgers, brownies and chips -- were increased, first by 25 percent and then 50 percent. About half of the students were given calorie information at all lunches, while the rest were not.
Overall, Giesen's team found students tended to order fewer calories when a junk food tax was in place. They curbed their average calorie intake by about 100 to 300 calories depending on the tax in place. The only students who did not respond to the price increases were those who were already watching their diets and were given calorie information. They ate fewer calories than their peers without any food tax, and showed little change in their eating when taxes were added.
"The most important finding of our study is that a tax of 25 percent or more on [high-calorie] foods makes nearly everyone buy fewer calories," Giesen told Reuters Health in an e-mail.
For people who are weight- and diet-conscious, calorie info might trump price, according to Giesen. "However, if one wants to help people in general prevent caloric overconsumption, then our results indicate that imposing a high tax on [high-calorie] food items is much more efficacious."
According to Giesen, studies are still needed to see whether smaller tax increases -- closer to 10 percent, which would be more politically viable -- influence people's buying habits.
Junk food taxes and greater openness with calorie information have both been advocated as ways to help consumers limit their calories -- and, the hope is, keep their weight in the healthy range. Proponents argue that it would not only discourage people from buying them, but could also help offset the estimated $147 billion cost of treating obesity-related illnesses, Reuters noted.
However, industry trade groups including the American Beverage Association and anti-tax activists such as Americans Against Food Taxes (which has industry backing) argue that there is no evidence that junk food taxes will fight the U.S. obesity problem. They also assert that such taxes will only unduly burden low-income families, according to the report.