Should We Tax Meat and Dairy Like We Do Cigarettes?

One of the most effective ways to decrease the harms of smoking is by increasing the cost of cigarettes through tobacco taxes. Indeed, an increase in the cost of cigarettes by only 10 percent could prevent millions of tobacco-related deaths. What about taxing unhealthy food? In general, public health decision makers have had three main options: inform through labeling, nudge with incentives, or directly intervene in markets using more heavy-handed approaches like instituting regulations or taxes.

“Policy approaches have proven crucial for other public health priorities, such as reducing tobacco use, alcohol abuse, and deaths from motor vehicle crashes.” In fact, installing air bags, for example, helped more than either “driver education alone or by labeling cars with information on crash risk.” Given that heart disease kills more than ten times more people than injuries on the road, maybe the “current epidemic of nutrition-related disease requires a similar multifaceted approach…[E]ven modest resulting dietary improvements could help reduce the burden of chronic disease significantly.” Perhaps a national system of subsidies for good foods, as well as taxes for bad ones, could “facilitate more sensible dietary choices.” Would they work? I discuss this in my video Would Taxing Unhealthy Foods Improve Public Health?.

A systematic review of the available evidence suggests such taxes and subsidies would in fact work. As I show in my video at 1:30, it seems the more unhealthy foods are taxed, the more consumption drops. Likewise, the more healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are subsidized and their prices drop, the more consumption increases. A small price difference between leaded and unleaded gasoline, for example, succeeded in decreasing our exposure to lead. What about a tax to decrease our exposure to saturated fat? As you can see from the data at 1:52 in my video, such a tax could potentially save thousands of lives.

Wouldn’t such a tax disproportionally affect the poor, though? Yes, it would benefit them the most—just like cigarette taxes. The classic tobacco industry argument is that cigarette taxes are “unfair” and “regressive,” burdening the poor the most. The public health community’s response? “Cancer is unfair” and “[c]ancer is regressive,” disproportionately burdening the poor such that a cigarette tax could result in the greatest health gains for the least well-off. The so-called Committee Against Unfair Taxes was actually just a front, “organised and funded by the tobacco industry,” one front group among many, as you can see at 2:42 in my video. This is a common tactic used by the industry to hide its role in fighting tobacco taxes, in addition to trying to overtly buy off politicians. The fact that the industry fights tooth and nail suggests that tobacco taxes can indeed affect consumption. Much of the data on food taxes and subsidies, however, have been based on models or “stated preferences” to hypothetical scenarios where people merely say they’d change consumption patterns based on prices. There hasn’t been as much real world data.

Researchers have put people through high-tech, 3D supermarket simulators, which you can see depicted at 3:15 in my video, and found that a 25 percent discount on fruits and vegetables appears to boost produce purchases by 25 percent. That’s nearly two pounds a week, but virtual fruits and veggies don’t do you any good. Does this work out in the real world? Yes. In fact, South Africa’s largest health insurance company started offering up to 25 percent cash back on healthy food purchases to hundreds of thousands of households—up to $500 USD a month. Why would the insurance company do that? Why give money away? Because it works. The healthy food cash-back program was associated with an increase in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as a decrease in  foods high in added sugar, salt, and fat, including processed meats and fast food.

Subsidies are more common than taxes, though, in Europe, where a number of countries have instituted taxes on foods that are sugary or salty. Denmark was the first to introduce a tax on saturated fat, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, but it only took the food industry about a year to squash it, demonstrating that “public health advocates are weak in tackling the issues of corporate power.”

There’s “an enormous imbalance” between the influence exerted by public health professionals compared to the political might of the food industry. It brings to mind the fight over proposed “traffic light labelling” on food in the European Union. Apparently, it was much too easy to understand, simple and straightforward, so the industry lost its mind and spent more than $1.4 billion USD killing it in favor of the confusing “daily amount” labeling guidelines that require a “bring-your-calculator-to-the-grocery-store” approach to make grocery shopping as confusing as possible, as you can see at 4:51 in my video.

Denmark ended up canceling the fat tax and shelving their sugar tax because the farming and food company interests claimed too many jobs would be lost if people ate healthier. Apparently, a healthy economy was more important than a healthy population. Ironically, it was abolished just when evidence of its effects started to appear. Researchers “conclude[d] that the introduction of the saturated fat tax contributed to reducing the intake of saturated fat among Danish consumers” from some meat and dairy products—but not from sour cream, though. The public ate so much more low-fat sour cream that it outweighed the smaller reduction in consumption of high-fat sour cream.

Indeed, we always have to think about the unintended consequences. Swapping out sugary cookies for salty chips, for example, might not do the public’s health many favors. One field study of a tax on soda found that it may drop soft drink purchases, at least in the short term, but households may just end up buying more beer.


This idea is the flip side of sorts to my video Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods.

For more on how the food industry has borrowed from the tobacco industry playbook, see

What about those who insist that sodium really isn’t bad for you? Check out:

And those who insist that saturated fat really isn’t bad for you? See The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public and The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

What about those who insist that sugar really isn’t bad for you? Watch Big Sugar Takes on the World Health Organization and Does Diet Soda Increase Stroke Risk as Much as Regular Soda?.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Why Drinking Diet Soda Makes You Crave Sugar

Recommendations on limiting sugar consumption vary around the world, with guidelines ranging from “[l]imit sweet desserts to one every other day” to “[k]eep sugar consumption to 4 or less occasions per day.” In the United States, the American Heart Association is leading the charge, “proposing dramatic reductions in the consumption of soft drinks and other sweetened products” and recommending fewer than about 5 percent of calories a day from added sugars, which may not even allow for a single can of soda.

Why is the American Heart Association so concerned about sugar? “Overconsumption of added sugars has long been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” meaning heart disease and strokes. We used to think added sugars were just a marker for an unhealthy diet. At fast-food restaurants, for example, people may be more likely to order a cheeseburger with their super-sized soda than a salad. However, the new thinking is that the added sugars in processed foods and drinks may be independent risk factors in and of themselves. Indeed, worse than just empty calories, they may be actively disease-promoting calories, which I discuss in my video Does Diet Soda Increase Stroke Risk as Much as Regular Soda?.

At 1:14 in my video, you can see a chart of how much added sugar the American public is consuming. The data show that only about 1 percent meet the American Heart Association recommendation to keep added sugar intake down to 5 or 6 percent of daily caloric intake. Most people are up around 15 percent, which is where cardiovascular disease risk starts to take off. There is a doubling of risk at about 25 percent of calories and a quadrupling of risk for those getting one-third of their daily caloric intake from added sugar.

Two hundred years ago, we ate an estimated 7 pounds of sugar annually. Today, we may consume dozens of pounds of sugar a year. We’re hardwired to like sweet foods because we evolved surrounded by fruit, not Froot Loops, but this adaptation is “terribly misused and abused” today, “hijacked” by the food industry for our pleasure and their profits. “Why are we consuming so much sugar despite knowing too much can harm us?” Yes, it may have an addictive quality and there’s the hardwiring, but the processed food industry isn’t helping. Seventy five percent of packaged foods and beverages in the United States contain added sweeteners, mostly coming from sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, which are thought responsible for more than a 100,000 deaths worldwide and millions of years of healthy life lost. Given this, can we just switch to diet sodas? By choosing diet drinks, can’t we get that sweet taste we crave without any of the downsides? Unfortunately, studies indicate that “[r]outine consumption of diet soft drinks is linked to increases in the same risks that many seek to avoid by using artificial sweeteners—namely type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome heart disease, and stroke.” At 3:15 in my video, you can see data showing the increased risks of cardiovascular disease associated with regular soft drinks and also diet soda. They aren’t that dissimilar.

“In other words, the belief that artificially sweetened diet beverages reduce long-term health risks is not supported by scientific evidence, and instead, scientific data indicate that diet soft drink consumption may contribute to the very health risks people have been seeking to avoid.” But, why? It makes sense that drinking all that sugar in a regular soft drink might increase stroke risk, due to the extra inflammation and triglycerides, but why does a can of diet soda appear to increase stroke risk the same amount? It’s possible that the caramel coloring in brown sodas like colas plays a role, but another possibility is that “artificial sweeteners may increase the desire for sugar-sweetened, energy-dense beverages/foods.”

The problem with artificial sweeteners “is that a disconnect ultimately develops between the amount of sweetness the brain tastes and how much glucose [blood sugar] ends up coming to the brain.” The brain feels cheated and “figures you have to eat more and more and more sweetness in order to get any calories out of it.” So, “[a]s a consequence, at the end of the day, your brain says, ‘OK, at some point I need some glucose [blood sugar] here.’ And then you eat an entire cake, because nobody can hold out in the end.”

If people are given Sprite, Sprite Zero (a zero-calorie soda), or unsweetened, carbonated, lemon-lime water, but aren’t told which drink they’re getting or what the study is about, when they’re later offered a choice of M&M’s, spring water, or sugar-free gum, who do you think picks the M&M’s? Those who drank the artificially sweetened soda were nearly three times more likely to take the candy than those who consumed either the sugar-sweetened or unsweetened drinks. So, it wasn’t a matter of sweet versus non-sweet or calories versus no-calories. There’s something about non-caloric sweeteners that somehow tricks the brain.

The researchers did another study in which everyone was given Oreos and were then asked how satisfied the cookies made them feel. Once again, those who drank the artificially sweetened Sprite Zero reported feeling less satisfied than those who drank the regular Sprite or the sparkling water. “These results are consistent with recent [brain imaging] studies demonstrating that regular consumption of [artificial sweeteners] can alter the neural pathways responsible for the hedonic [or pleasure] response to food.”

Indeed, “[t]he only way really to prevent this problem—to break the addiction—is to go completely cold turkey and go off all sweeteners—artificial as well as fructose [table sugar and high fructose corn syrup]. Eventually, the brain resets itself and you don’t crave it as much.”

We’ve always assumed the “[c]onsumption of both sugar and artificial sweeteners may be changing our palates or taste preferences over time, increasing our desire for sweet foods. Unfortunately, the data on this [were] lacking”…until now. Twenty people agreed to cut out all added sugars and artificial sweeteners for two weeks. Afterwards, 95 percent “found that sweet foods and drinks tasted sweeter or too sweet” and “said moving forward they would use less or even no sugar.” What’s more, most stopped craving sugar within the first week—after only six days. This suggests a two-week sugar challenge, or even a one-week challenge, may “help to reset taste preferences and make consuming less or no sugar easier.” Perhaps we should be recommending it to our patients. “Eating fewer processed foods and choosing more real, whole, and plant-based foods make it easy to consume less sugar.”


Speaking of stroke, did you see my Chocolate and Stroke Risk video?

For more on added sugars, see:

You may also be interested in my videos on artificial and low-calorie sweeteners:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Sparkling or Still Water for Stomach Upset and Constipation?

“Natural bubbling or sparkling mineral waters have been popular for thousands of years,” but manufactured sparkling water was first “‘invented’ in the mid to late 1700s” when a clergyman suspended water over a vat of fermenting beer. “For centuries, carbonated water has been considered capable of relieving gastrointestinal symptoms, including dyspepsia,” or tummy aches. But we didn’t have good data until a study was published in 2002, which I discuss in my video Club Soda for Stomach Pain and Constipation. Twenty-one people with dyspepsia, which was defined in the study as “pain or discomfort located in the upper abdomen” including bloating, nausea, and constipation were randomized to drink one and a half quarts of either carbonated or tap water every day for two weeks.

Carbonated water improved both dyspepsia and constipation compared to tap water. “Drink more water” is a common recommendation for constipation, but researchers didn’t observe a clear benefit of the added tap water. It seems you need to increase fiber and water rather than just water alone, but sparkling water did appear to help on its own. The study used a sparkling mineral water, though, so we can’t tell whether these effects were due to the bubbles or the minerals.

There’s been a concern that carbonated beverages may increase heartburn and GERD, acid reflux disease, but that was based on studies that compared water to Pepsi cola. Soda may put the pepsi in dyspepsia and contribute to heartburn, but so may tea and coffee in those who suffer from heartburn. That may be partly from the cream and sugar, though, since milk is another common contributor to heartburn. Carbonated water alone, though, shouldn’t be a problem.

Similarly, while flavored sparkling drinks can erode our enamel, it’s not the carbonation, but the added juices and acids. Sparkling water alone appears 100 times less erosive than citrus or soda. So, a sparkling mineral water may successfully help treat a stomach ache and constipation without adverse effects, unless you’re the teenage boy who opened a bottle of sparkling wine with his teeth or the nine-year-old boy who tried to do so on a hot day after he’d shaken it up, actions placing them at risk for a pneumatic rupture of the esophagus.


For more on combating acid reflux, see Diet and GERD Acid Reflux Heartburn and Diet and Hiatal Hernia.

Some of my other videos on beverages include:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: