Does Taxing Unhealthy Foods Work?

Does taxing unhealthy foods make people eat better? It’s complicated.

Researchers with the Urban Institute have concluded that while well-designed taxes on certain products may cause people to turn to more nutritious options, it’s no guarantee they will have the desired effect and could even impose burdens without any benefit to consumers.

Health advocates and policymakers have been discussing for years whether to combat the U.S. obesity crisis by placing special taxes on unhealthy foods and drinks such as sugary sodas and processed foods. Some countries, including Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Mexico and Norway, have levied taxes on specific foods.

In the U.S., 20 states have put higher taxes on soft drinks than on other foods. This year Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to pass a soda tax, and the Navajo nation has similar taxes. Targeted taxes have been shot down elsewhere, including in New York City, where a judge knocked down its ban on sodas bigger than 16 ounces.