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UIC receives $1 million grant to study 'fat taxes,' diet, obesity

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have received $1 million from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to study the relationship between "fat taxes" and food consumption, diet quality and obesity.

The funding for the two-year project was made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The study will link state tax rates associated with restaurants and with specific sugar- and fat-laden foods and beverages (soda, candy, baked goods and chips) to individual survey data.

Using multiple data sets from a 10-year period -- 1997 through 2007 -- the researchers will determine if differential tax rates equate to differences in consumption, diet quality and body mass index, or BMI, for children, adolescents and adults.

The study will separately examine these relationships among low-income food stamp recipients and non-food stamp recipients.

Previous economic studies suggest that food prices do change consumption. However, the researchers want to determine if, for example, consumers will seek out another high-sugar drink such as Kool-Aid if, say, soda is too expensive. If they do, then a tax on soda may reduce soda consumption but will not necessarily reduce weight, improve diet quality, or reduce overall sugar intake.

"We want to know if this price sensitivity is just for a specific good, such as soda, or if it translates into changes in diet quality and weight outcomes," said Lisa Powell, senior research scientist at UIC's Institute for Health Research and Policy and principal investigator of the study. "It will help lay the foundation on the extent to which these taxes may be effective policy instruments to generate behavior change and potentially reduce obesity."

Current fat-tax rates are fairly low, ranging, for example, from 0 to 7 percent for soda.

Taxing soda is an easy target because it is clear there is not a lot of nutritional value, said Powell. But if you look at taxing all foods or beverages with a certain amount of sugar or fat, that might include a fortified cereal that could also be healthy.

"Defining healthy and unhealthy when there are many different components to food can be difficult," she said.

According to the researchers, the study is critical because Americans are increasingly consuming poor diets, which have contributed to a public health crisis with more than 17 percent of children and 32 percent of adults being obese.

Powell's co-investigators at UIC are Frank Chaloupka, distinguished professor of economics and director of the Health Policy Center; Carol Braunschweig, associate professor of human nutrition; Jamie Chriqui, senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy; and Euna Han, health economist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy.


Contact: Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez
University of Illinois at Chicago

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