Philadelphia’s proposed tax on sugary drinks would reduce consumption of health-harming beverages enough to prevent thousands of cases of obesity, extend lives and avert millions in healthcare costs over 10 years, researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have concluded.
With funding from Healthy Food America, researchers for Harvard’s CHOICES project localized their national, peer reviewed model to examine the potential health impact of Philadelphia’s proposed sugary drink tax. They project that the tax of 3 cents per ounce would persuade regular consumers of sugary drinks to lower their intake. As a result, the model projects that 36,000 fewer people would be obese at the end of 2025 than without the tax. When the tax reaches its full effect over the next decade, as many as 2,280 cases of diabetes a year could be prevented. The prevented cases of obesity will result in lower estimated 10-year health care costs, with projected savings averaging $200 million.*
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has proposed the tax in order to generate as much as $400 million over five years to provide universal preschool for all of his city’s 4-year olds, among other benefits. Communities across the country and the globe 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.
“In addition to the clear benefit of providing revenue for important priorities like pre-K,” said HFA Executive Director Jim Krieger, “this rigorous research also shows taxes on sugary drinks can bring enormous benefits in saving lives and dollars.”
“Our analysis looks beyond revenue and finds that this excise tax on sugary drinks can generate significant prevention of new cases of obesity, diabetes, improved quality adjusted life years and healthcare cost savings due to positive effects on consumer health,” said lead investigator of the CHOICES Project, Dr. Steven Gortmaker, who also serves as the director of the Harvard Prevention Research Center and 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 sugar-sweetened beverage taxes.”
The greatest beneficiaries are likely to be low-income and communities of color who are disproportionately targeted both by the marketing of sugary drinks and the diseases associated with regular consumption of them, Krieger said.
While the tax could require as much as $2.38 million in administrative costs over 10 years, the net savings in obesity-related healthcare would be 84 times that, according to the model. A reduction in obesity on the order projected also would add 3,000 years to Philadelphians’ lives and contribute toward 10,200 “quality adjusted life years”, unburdened by debilitating disease.
*A note on methodology: The figures given here are the average outputs from 1,000 runs of the computer simulation. Some results showed a wide range of possible impact, though all saw positive effects. For example, the estimate of obesity-related cost savings ranged from a low of $60 million to a high of $527 million. For details on methodology and the ranges for all outputs, please see the full CHOICES Project brief.