A new study1 published in the journal Preventive Medicine explored the potential of taxing weight-management dietary supplements to dissuade teenage consumers from purchasing these products. The study concluded that a 20% tax on weight-loss dietary supplements could reduce purchases of “potentially dangerous diet pills” that the authors say contribute to eating disorders and body dysmorphia in teens. Now, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) is defending weight-loss products against what it says is an ultimately ineffective strategy to protect consumers from detrimental weight-loss practices.
The study, titled “Could a Tax on Unhealthy Products Sold for Weight Loss Reduce Consumer Use? A Novel Estimation of Potential Taxation Effects,” posited that abuse of over-the-counter (OTC) weight-loss drugs and supplements, including diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics, by teens for the purpose of weight control is well-documented; however, regulation of these products is virtually nonexistent. Per the study authors: “Manufacturers and retailers can sell [weight-loss supplements] to minors without restriction.” According to the authors, the main goal of the study was to examine the potential effects of a tax on OTC drugs and dietary supplements sold for weight-loss purposes on teen household purchases.
Researchers analyzed purchasing data from 60,538 U.S. households in the 2012 waves of the Nielsen/IRI National Consumer Panel (NCP) and the Nielsen/IRI Retail Scanner (NRS) datasets. Using that data, the study authors tallied annual quantities and expenditures on OTC drugs and dietary supplements in three claims categories: weight-loss, cleanse/detox, and diuretic. From there, the researchers estimated the percent reduction in purchases of these products with a simulated 20% added tax on each claim category. Of the 14,151 households reporting at least one purchase in the three categories, they wrote, “a 20% higher average price of weight-loss products was associated with a 5.2% lower purchases of those products.” In households with children between the ages of 12-16, they added, purchases of those products were 17.5% lower. Finally, in households with a daughter, purchases decreased by 10.3%. Based on the reduced purchases of weight-loss products, the authors concluded that taxation “may be an effective public health strategy to reduce purchasing of potentially dangerous OTC drugs and supplements sold for weight loss, especially for households that include children ages 12–17 years old or a daughter.”
In response to the study’s findings, Steve Mister, president, CEO, CRN, issued comments rejecting the idea that an added tax would reduce the potential risk of eating disorders or other negative weight-loss outcomes in teens.
“The desire to address eating disorders and body dysmorphia is well-intended, but the latest proposal to tax over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements for intended weight management would do nothing to tackle these issues,” Mister stated in a press release.
Rather than demonstrating any significant effect of an added tax on weight-loss supplements, he said, the research actually shows that an added tax would have “relatively minimal influence on overall purchasing behavior.” At the same time, he added, increasing the price of weight-management supplements with added taxation might actually discourage responsible use of those products.
“CRN challenges the recommendations at the conclusion of this new study, because they are simply unsupported by the facts and the study’s own outcome that consumer purchasing behavior for these products is relatively inelastic,” said Mister. “CRN will continue to fight against any attempt—especially those that are flawed—to restrict consumer access to safe and legal dietary supplements. Our resolve is especially strong considering no causal relationship between weight management supplements and eating disorders has been identified.”
“More than 170 million Americans take dietary supplements confidently each year, and while use of these products is widespread, abuse of weight management products is neither prevalent nor well-documented, despite what the study authors suggest,” he stated.
Mister added that current regulatory structures are sufficient for protecting consumers against potentially harmful dietary supplement products. “Consumer safety is a top priority for the dietary supplement industry, and the responsible industry has lobbied for, and helped to enact, key dietary supplement legislation and regulation to improve consumer safety. As a result of our efforts as well as FDA’s regulatory oversight and enforcement actions, consumers who choose to use dietary supplements responsibly are well-protected.”
- Austin SB et al., “Could a tax on unhealthy products sold for weight loss reduce consumer use? A novel estimation of potential taxation effects,” Preventive Medicine, vol. 114 (September 2018): 39-46