Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Is cheap gasoline killing us? Fuel subsidies and under-taxation as a driver of obesity and public health problems worldwide

October 19, 2021

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Jeff Colgan and co-author Miriam Hinthorn (Brown University) recently published a piece in Energy Research and Social Science on the relationship between fuel prices and the global obesity epidemic using data spanning 145 countries between 1998 and 2016.


Energy subsidies worldwide run into the trillions of dollars, with major negative economic and environmental consequences, but they have proven politically difficult to remove. This paper studies the relationship between fuel prices and the global obesity epidemic using data spanning 145 countries between 1998 and 2016. Low or subsidized fuel makes car travel more affordable, thereby making it more attractive compared to healthier modes of transportation such as walking or cycling. Previous studies provide suggestive evidence, but the link between fuel prices and obesity has yet to be shown over a time-period of decades, or on a global scale. In the models presented there is a consistently strong, statistically significant, and negative association between gasoline price and body mass index (BMI). While BMI rose over time almost everywhere, the rate of increase was considerably lower in countries with high fuel prices. The findings suggest public health advocates have reason to consider joining the coalition of environmentalists and economists already urging reforms to fuel subsidies and taxation.