Taxes may discourage purchase of sugared and high-fat beverages in households with young children, study finds

June 24, 2015

Given the prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States and globally, any measure that encourages children’s early consumption of healthier foods and drinks can only be beneficial. A new study suggests that financial incentives to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages can be such a measure.

Chris Ford

Dr. Christopher N. Ford

Researchers at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health determined that taxing high-calorie beverages may help persuade families of preschool children in the U.S. to buy fewer such beverages and perhaps to buy fewer high-calorie foods, as well. The study, “Targeted Beverage Taxes Influence Food and Beverage Purchases Among Households with Preschool Children,” used household food and beverage purchase data from the 2009 – 2012 Nielsen Homescan Panel, and was published online June 10 in the Journal of Nutrition.

Christopher N. Ford, PhD, Gillings School Department of Nutrition alumnus, now a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, is the study’s lead author. Shu Wen Ng, PhD, research assistant professor, and Barry M. Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor, both from the Gillings School’s Department of Nutrition, are co-authors.

The authors included data from households with a preschool-aged child (two to five years), noting, “Preschool children are an ideal population for dietary interventions because eating behaviors and food preferences are formed during the first five years of life and because the environments of young children are controlled by […] adult caregivers.”

To examine the potential impact of a taxes on beverages high in fat and/or sugar on the purchases of these households, the authors simulated a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and on milks with high sugar or fat content, examining tax rates of 10 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent.

They found that families purchased fewer total calories on their visits to grocery stores with taxes as low at 10 percent. More significant changes, however, were seen at 20 percent, suggesting that taxes at this rate or higher may be needed to appreciably alter purchasing behaviors.

“In the U.S., we already impose an average additional sales tax of 5.3 percent on soft drinks,” said Ford, noting that sales taxes like these are unlikely to influence behavior because they are not reflected in an item’s shelf price. “At the very least, the pervasive sales tax on soft drinks imposed by many states should be changed to an excise tax in order to influence behavior. Our findings would suggest that even small taxes may discourage the purchase of beverages high in fat and/or sugar among households with young children.”

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or

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