Studies found that also raising taxes on sugary drinks may prevent even more deaths
By Amy Norton
TUESDAY, March 1, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Cutting the cost of fruits and vegetables, while bumping up prices on junk food, could prevent thousands of deaths from heart disease and stroke each year in the United States, two new studies suggest.
Researchers say that policies to trim the cost of produce, such as agriculture subsidies, could make healthy eating affordable for more Americans. And that could translate into more than 500,000 lives saved over 20 years.
The projections, to be presented Tuesday at an American Heart Association (AHA) meeting in Phoenix, are based on a computer model that simulated how pricing policies could affect Americans' dietary habits, and ultimately heart disease and stroke rates.
The studies did not prove that cutting prices on fruits and vegetables and raising prices on sugary drinks would save lives. They only showed an association.
While there is no crystal ball, experts said it's reasonable to assume that cheaper prices would boost Americans' fruit and vegetable intake.
"People's lifestyle habits are affected by economics," said Dr. Mark Creager, president of the AHA and director of the Heart and Vascular Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, N.H.
He pointed to tobacco policies as an example.
"Taxes that increased the price of tobacco have clearly had a very favorable impact on the number of Americans who smoke," said Creager, who was not involved in the studies.
So, it's not a stretch to assume that cheaper prices on healthy food would also have a positive effect, Creager said.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, who worked on both studies, agreed.
"An extensive [research] literature and real-world experience demonstrate the impact of changes in food prices on dietary habits," said Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in Boston.
"This is the beauty and strength of using economics," he added. "It nudges people toward healthier choices, while also better representing the real societal price of different foods."
For the studies, Mozaffarian and his colleagues used data on Americans' demographics, rates of heart disease and stroke, and current fruit and vegetable intake. They estimated how various food-pricing policies could ultimately change people's cardiovascular outlook, versus what would happen with no policy shifts.