U.S. nutrition policies may cut heart disease and save lives

(Reuters Health) - Public health policies have the potential to reduce heart disease in the U.S. and save nearly 250,000 lives over 15 years, researchers say.

The kinds of policies they’re talking about would lower the price of fruit and vegetables, help lower-income families make better choices, impose taxes on sugary drinks and launch media campaigns, according to a report in the journal PLoS Medicine.

“I think what our study does is highlight the potential power of food policies to reduce cardiovascular mortality and disparities in the U.S.,” said lead author Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, of Imperial College London.

Pearson-Stuttard and colleagues say large disparities exist along social and economic lines when it comes to diet and heart disease. While past research found policies could influence diets, the measurable effects on heart disease in the U.S. are unknown.

“The key question we’re trying to answer overall is which policies are best buys for policymakers to consider,” said co-senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

Using a computer model, the researchers estimated what various policies might mean for heart disease in the U.S. between 2015 and 2030.

Those national policies included a media campaign and a 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The researchers also analyzed the effect of subsidizing the cost of fruits and vegetables, by 10 percent in general and by 30 percent for people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.

A national 10 percent subsidy on fruits and vegetables would be the most beneficial policy, with approximately 150,500 lives saved from deaths by heart disease over the 15-year study period, the authors estimate.

A 30 percent subsidy for SNAP participants would likely save 35,100 lives, and a 10 percent soda tax would save 31,000 lives, they calculate. A year-long mass media campaign was estimated to save 25,800 lives.

Mozaffarian said it’s interesting that a national soda tax would save only about a fifth of the lives saved by a national 10 percent subsidy of fruits and vegetables.

“That’s not something that would be obvious without doing the analysis,” he said.

The estimates also suggested that a targeted subsidy for SNAP participants, which has been tested in Massachusetts, would narrow the gap in heart disease rates between low-income and higher-income people by 8 percent.

Pearson-Stuttard told Reuters Health the large gains among SNAP participants can be attributed to their higher risks for heart disease and stroke, and their lower consumption of fruits and vegetables.

When the researchers estimated the potential benefit of implementing all of the policies together, they found that nearly 230,000 lives could be saved over 15 years while reducing the heart disease disparity between SNAP-eligible and -ineligible people by 6 percent.

The researchers can’t say how much such policies would cost, but Pearson-Stuttard said they may be cost-neutral since revenue would increase for certain foods while decreasing for others.

“It’s very likely these (expenses) over time would be cost-saving because of the savings in the healthcare system and contributions to the wider economy,” he said.

SOURCE: PLoS Medicine, online June 6, 2017.