(NEW YORK) -- Adding a high tax on unhealthy food and drinks may help slow the rising rates of obesity, according to a new study published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal.
Previous studies suggest that the sharp tax increase on cigarettes in 2009 has contributed to the dramatic decrease in the number of smokers in the U.S. And it's hoped a "fat" tax would work the same way.
A tax of at least 20 percent placed on sugar-sweetened drinks could drop obesity rates by 3.5 percent and prevent 2,700 heart-related deaths each year, according to the study.
Nearly 34 percent of Americans are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The growing obesity rate has led to high cholesterol, and an increase in chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer. The goal of the tax is to curb sales of unhealthy food and decrease overconsumption, which may help to prevent disease.
The study also called for subsidizing the cost of healthy foods and vegetables to make them more affordable to greater numbers of people.
A growing number of European countries, including Denmark and France, have already imposed a tax on unhealthy food and drinks.
But not all foods that are high in fat are considered unhealthy, which may challenge the notion of imposing a blanket tax, some food policy experts said. It's important to first distinguish what food and drink should be labeled "unhealthy" before imposing a tax, they said.
"Some high fat food like nuts are related to reduced weight gain," said Dr. Walt Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard University's School of Public Health.
Salmon and avocados, also high in unsaturated, so-called good fat, are also considered healthy foods. Unsaturated fat eaten in moderation can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.
"A focus on sugar and refined starch is better, but as a first step I favor a focus just on sugar-sweetened beverages as the evidence is strongest for this," said Willett.
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