Research snapshot: The way a soda tax is framed affects consumer interest

Recently there has been policy discussion, both in the United States and globally, about raising the prices of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, as a strategy to reduce their consumption.

Sarah Gollust, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and member of the Masonic Cancer Center, and colleaguesresearched the impact this potential price increase would have on young adults’ attitudes towards sweetened beverages. She wanted to know if the language invoked in policy discussions might work to shift views about soda and lower intentions to purchase these drinks.

Many experts believe that the increased cost of the taxed product will reduce consumer demand for it. However, in their research, Gollust and her colleagues set out to determine how changing the way in which the price change is framed – such as a strategy to reduce obesity, as a way to raise revenue, or to protect children – would affect how consumers responded. They conducted an internet-based survey of about 500 college students to examine this question.

“We found that certain ways of describing a soda tax significantly influenced young adults’ reported intentions to purchase a soda,” says Gollust. “Justifying a tax by saying it will help reduce obesity, offset chronic health care costs, or protect children reduced respondents’ intentions of saying they would purchase soda, compared to a message that simply explained that the cost of soda was going up. In addition, justifying a tax for obesity prevention contributed to unfavorable perceptions of soda companies, but only among young people who did not regularly consume soda.”

While these preliminary findings are promising, Gollust notes that additional research should continue to evaluate the ways in which a policy focusing on reducing soda consumption will affect the public’s attitudes and behaviors, especially in real-world contexts. High consumption of sugary drinks remains an extensive source of empty calories in people’s diets, and overconsumption has been linked to negative health outcomes, including obesity, poor dental health, and chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Soda taxes are on the policy agenda worldwide because consumption of sugary drinks is so high, especially among youth and young adults,” Gollust said. “The message that policymakers and advocates attach to a soda tax – why it is important, what the tax will accomplish – matters, since this language can influence consumers regardless of whether the tax actually gets adopted.”

This research was supported by the University of Minnesota Obesity Prevention Center and the University of Minnesota Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute.

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