June 16, 2017

Subsidize fruits and vegetables—and save 150,000 lives, study says

Daily Briefing

Adopting U.S. policies that promote healthy eating could prevent or delay about 230,000 cardiovascular disease-related deaths by 2030, according to a study published Tuesday in PLOS Medicine.

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Study details

For the study, researchers from several institutions—including the University of Liverpool, the Montefiore Medical Center, Tufts University, the American Heart Association, and Brigham and Women's Hospital—examined federal data to project the estimated effects four dietary policies could have on heart disease-related deaths and disparities between 2015 and 2030.

The four policies were:

  • A national media campaign designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption as well as decrease sugar-sweetened beverage consumption;
  • A national 10 percent tax on  sugar-sweetened beverages;
  • A national policy to subsidize fruits and vegetables to reduce prices by 10 percent; and
  • A targeted policy to subsidize fruits and vegetables to reduce prices by 30 percent among individuals enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Findings

According to the study, a national subsidy to reduce fruits and vegetables prices would be the most beneficial of the four dietary policies—preventing or postponing approximately 150,500 cardiovascular disease-related deaths in the United States by 2030.

The researchers found a targeted subsidy for SNAP enrollees would prevent or postpone about 35,100 cardiovascular disease-related deaths over the 15-year period studied, while a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would prevent or postpone about 31,000 cardiovascular disease-related deaths—which is roughly a fifth of the cases that would be prevented or postponed by a national subsidy to lower the price of fruits and vegetables. The national media campaign would have the least effect, preventing or postponing about 25,800 cardiovascular disease-related deaths, according to the study.

In addition, the researchers found a national 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and a national policy to subsidize fruits and vegetables prices by 10 percent would be about three and five times more effective, respectively, at reducing cardiovascular disease disparities between SNAP enrollees and those who are ineligible for SNAP than the national media campaign.

The researchers found that combining the four policies would have the biggest effect—preventing, or postponing a total of 230,000 cardiovascular disease-related deaths by 2030 while reducing the heart disease disparity between SNAP eligible and SNAP ineligible populations by 6 percent.

Discussion

Although the researchers did not estimate the costs of implementing the dietary policies, Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, the study's lead author and a fellow at Imperial College London, said, "It's very likely these (expenses) over time would be cost-saving because of the savings in the health care system and contributions to the wider economy."

Dariush Mozaffarian, a senior author of the study and dean of Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, also said the study led to the less "obvious" finding that a national tax on sugary drinks might not result in a significant reduction in cardiovascular disease-related deaths. Cities across the United States have adopted such policies and some have reported benefits linked to the taxes.

However, Roland Sturm, a senior economist at RAND who was not involved with the study, said taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages do not always apply to all high-calorie drinks, which means individuals can get just as much sugar from other beverages, such as fruit juices or sweet milk-based drinks.

Overall, Pearson-Stuttard said the study "highlight[s] the potential power of food policies to reduce cardiovascular mortality and disparities in the" United States (Seaman, Reuters, 6/6; Rappleye, Becker's Hospital Review, 6/7; Belluz, Vox, 6/8; Pearson-Stuttard et al., PLOS Medicine, 6/6).

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