Bulletin of the World Health Organization

The effect of fiscal policy on diet, obesity and chronic disease: a systematic review

Anne Marie Thow, Stephen Jan, Stephen Leeder & Boyd Swinburn

Objective

To assess the effect of food taxes and subsidies on diet, body weight and health through a systematic review of the literature.

Methods

We searched the English-language published and grey literature for empirical and modelling studies on the effects of monetary subsidies or taxes levied on specific food products on consumption habits, body weight and chronic conditions. Empirical studies were dealing with an actual tax, while modelling studies predicted outcomes based on a hypothetical tax or subsidy.

Findings

Twenty-four studies met the inclusion criteria: 13 were from the peer-reviewed literature and 11 were published on line. There were 8 empirical and 16 modelling studies. Nine studies assessed the impact of taxes on food consumption only, 5 on consumption and body weight, 4 on consumption and disease and 6 on body weight only. In general, taxes and subsidies influenced consumption in the desired direction, with larger taxes being associated with more significant changes in consumption, body weight and disease incidence. However, studies that focused on a single target food or nutrient may have overestimated the impact of taxes by failing to take into account shifts in consumption to other foods. The quality of the evidence was generally low. Almost all studies were conducted in high-income countries.

Conclusion

Food taxes and subsidies have the potential to contribute to healthy consumption patterns at the population level. However, current evidence is generally of low quality and the empirical evaluation of existing taxes is a research priority, along with research into the effectiveness and differential impact of food taxes in developing countries.

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