Harvard researchers: Cook County soda tax would reduce diabetes, extend lives, and avert $222 million in health costs over 10 years

Cook County’s proposed tax on sweetened drinks would extend thousands of lives and reduce diabetes and obesity rates while saving nearly $222 million in healthcare costs over the next decade, researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have concluded.

To examine the potential health impact of the proposed tax, researchers for Harvard’s CHOICES project localized a national, peer-reviewed computer model to project impacts in Cook County. The model predicts that the tax of one cent per ounce would lead many consumers to shift away from sugary drinks that cause health harms. 

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As a result of that shift, the incidence of diabetes would drop by an estimated 7 percent when the tax reaches full effect after a few years. The model estimates 37,000 fewer people would be burdened with obesity at the end of 2025 than without the tax.

Reducing the chronic diseases associated with excess sugar and weight gain would cut healthcare costs by $222 million over 10 years in comparison to taking no action. The net savings in obesity-related healthcare would be about 26 times the cost to administer the tax, according to the model.

The county estimates the tax would raise $223 million a year for critical programs and prevent diseases associated with excess sugar consumption.

“This research shows the sweetened drink tax to be a brilliant way to raise vital revenue for the county while saving lives by preventing diabetes and other chronic disease,” said Dr. Jim Krieger, MD, MPH, executive director of Healthy Food America, a leading advocate of health policy. “Cook County’s actions will especially help low-income people and communities of color, who are disproportionately targeted both by the marketing of sugary drinks and the diseases associated with drinking them regularly,” he added.

Communities across the country and world are adopting taxes on sugary drinks – as they have on tobacco – to raise revenue for social and health programs while at the same time discouraging overuse of products linked to obesity, diabetes and heart, liver and dental disease. The World Health Organization on Oct. 11 called for governments to tax sugary drinks as part of the global strategy to combat chronic disease and obesity.

“Our analysis looks beyond revenue and finds that this tax on sweetened drinks can generate significant prevention of new cases of obesity, diabetes, improved quality adjusted life years and healthcare cost savings,” said lead investigator of the CHOICES Project, Dr. Steven Gortmaker, who also serves as the director of the Harvard Prevention Research Center and is a professor of the practice of health sociology at the Chan School of Public Health. “It is our intent that these findings serve as a source of research-based information surrounding potential health impacts of sweetened beverage taxes.”

Find the Harvard CHOICES brief for each city here.


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