Kids are gaining weight and soda is a big part of the problem. Do taxes on sweetened beverages discourage their purchase and do government policies that improve nutritional standards for school meals have an effect on childhood obesity? These questions were recently addressed in two studies conducted by researchers at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and published in Health Affairs.

In one study, researchers looked at the effect a 1.5 cent per ounce tax had on the sales of sweetened beverages, both those sweetened with sugar and those sweetened artificially, by analyzing beverage prices and purchases in Philadelphia before the tax went into effect and a year after the tax was implemented in early 2017.

…“[I]mproved school meals standards have been a great public health success story.”

This information was then compared to similar data collected in Baltimore, a city with no tax on sweetened beverages. The study analyzed sales in over 100 small independent stores in both cities and bag checks of nearly 4,600 customer purchases.

The tax ended up increasing the price of sweetened beverages by nearly two cents per ounce, while the quantity of taxed beverages sold dropped by almost 40 percent. Overall, the purchase of taxed drinks decreased by about six ounces. People who purchased beverages in low-income neighborhoods and those with lower educational levels bought about seven fewer ounces.

“Beverage taxes are a policy win-win since they lead people to buy fewer drinks that are bad for health and generate revenue that can be spent on programs such as children’s education,” study authors, Sara Bleich and Carol K. Pforzheimer, said in a statement.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was designed to raise the nutrition standards for meals and beverages provided by the National School Lunch, Breakfast and Smart Snacks program. Its impact on the risk of childhood obesity was the target of a second study.

Looking at information gathered on over 173,000 children in the National Survey of Children‘s Health from 2003-2018, the researchers found that the Act led to a reduction in the risk of childhood obesity among children living in poverty. The Act appeared to have no effect on other groups.

Children in low-income households are at higher risk of obesity. Among this group of children, the legislation appeared to reduce obesity levels by nearly 50 percent in 2018 from what would have been expected without the government program.

“Based on our study, as well as research that USDA and other researchers have conducted showing improvements in diet, the improved school meals standards have been a great public health success story,” said researcher, Erica Kenney, in a statement. “These healthier school meals are helping to protect the health of the children who have been placed at highest risk for poor health, and they reduce hunger while also reducing their risk of chronic diseases later in life.”

The researchers hope the successes of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and its science-based nutrition standards will encourage policymakers to look for ways to increase participation in school meal programs going forward.

Taken together, the two studies signal that there is reason to hope that some public health policies to improve our diets can bring positive results. Taxes on sugary drinks, and, potentially, other unhealthy foods, can cut consumption. Raising nutritional standards for government-run meal programs can improve the diets of at least some of those people enrolled in them.