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Research to examine impact of unhealthy food taxes in Tonga

Congratulations to HPF’s Dr Viliami Puloka and Otago University’s Dr Andrea Teng who have been awarded a Marsden Fund Standard grant to investigate the effects of Tonga’s world-leading, comprehensive taxation on unhealthy foods.

Dr Teng, associate investigator Dr Puloka, and Professor Nick Wilson will investigate the effects of Tonga’s taxation  programme on real-world outcomes – including food prices, import volumes, domestic manufacturing, household expenditure, and equity.  

They will compare household expenditure on, and consumption of, taxed and untaxed items before and after the changes in tax policy, and explore how these factors are impacted by a household’s income. The results of this study will be compared to studies on food taxes elsewhere in the world, producing a synthesised understanding of the consequences of this kind of policy intervention.

Across Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, Tonga demonstrates one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. However, it is also one of the few countries that has made significant progress on taxing unhealthy foods and beverages.

Not only has Tonga introduced substantive taxes on over 10 different high-fat and high-sugar products, it has also waived import taxes on selected healthy products such as fruit, vegetables, eggs and seafood.

Dr Puloka said he was thankful to have been given the opportunity to conduct such vital research.

'I hope this research can help other countries, especially Pacific nations.'

Dr Teng is hopeful their findings will help Aotearoa, where growing rates of obesity have increased the prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, especially among Māori and Pacific communities, to make some meaningful progress to improve our food environment.

“Food taxes have been recommended to improve public health. Research on how well food taxes work, and how the costs and health benefits vary by household income, is really useful for decision makers considering action on the food environment,” Dr Teng said.

“I’m so grateful that we can do this work to highlight the world-leading steps taken by Tonga on food taxes and understand how well they have worked."

This research will be one of the first to evaluate the effects of food taxes outside of Europe and North America, adding to a currently sparse literature on the topic. This important evaluation of Tonga’s food taxes is an excellent opportunity for global learning, and will help to inform best-practice policies to improve public health.

Banner photo by Christopher Williams on Unsplash