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Keywords:

  • Cost effectiveness;
  • fat taxes;
  • healthy eating;
  • nutrition policies;
  • obesity;
  • policy evaluation;
  • social benefits
  • I18;
  • D18;
  • H51

Abstract

Too much food energy intake (relative to expenditure) and unbalanced diets are implicated in a range of diseases that impose major burdens on healthcare systems and cause pain and suffering. Governments have responded by introducing a range of measures, mainly targeting information and education, largely to children. However, more interventionist measures have been advocated and, in the past year, various food taxes have been introduced in Denmark, Hungary and France. The Address discusses evaluation of policies, particularly in the light of alternative theories of diet choice (rational choice, systematically irrational, automatic). The public health approach uses quality adjusted life years but fails to distinguish between private and social benefits and takes no account of the drivers of food choice behaviour. The economic approach, based on informed choice, makes the distinction between private and social benefits (if not always explicitly) but struggles to evaluate policies that change utility functions and with behavioural assumptions other than traditional rationality. Alternative assumptions and approaches could put the cost of unhealthy eating anywhere between £10 billion and £100 billion per annum in the UK. Evidence suggests that information measures (to perform or persuade) do not much change diets, nor do they tackle the externality element of unhealthy eating. They may, however, help change long-term social norms. More interventionist measures like taxes improve social welfare (according to the compensation principle) and reduce health inequalities but are regressive, like all sin taxes. Almost all interventions pass cost-effectiveness tests.