Audrey Laporte and Brian S. Ferguson
One of the implications of the human capital literature of the 1960s was that a great many decisions individuals make that have consequences not just for the point in time when the decision is being made but also for the future can be thought of as involving investments in certain types of capital. In health economics, this led Michael Grossman to propose the concept of health capital, which refers not just to the individual’s illness status at any point in time, but to the more fundamental factors that affect the likelihood that she will be ill at any point in her life and also affect her life expectancy at each age. In Grossman’s model, an individual purchased health-related commodities that act through a health production function to improve her health. These commodities could be medical care, which could be seen as repair expenditures, or factors such as diet and exercise, which could be seen as ongoing additions to her health—the counterparts of adding savings to her financial capital on a regular basis. The individual was assumed to make decisions about her level of consumption of these commodities as part of an intertemporal utility-maximizing process that incorporated, through a budget constraint, the need to make tradeoffs between health-related goods and goods that had no health consequences. Pauline Ippolito showed that the same analytical techniques could be used to consider goods that were bad for health in the long run—bad diet and smoking, for example—still within the context of lifetime utility maximization. This raised the possibility that an individual might rationally take actions that were bad for her health in the long run. The logical extension of considering smoking as bad was adding recognition that smoking and other bad health habits were addictive. The notion of addictive commodities was already present in the literature on consumer behavior, but the consensus in that literature was that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between a rational addict and a completely myopic consumer of addictive goods. Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy proposed an alternative approach to modeling a forward-looking, utility-maximizing consumer’s consumption of addictive commodities, based on the argument that an individual’s degree of addiction could be modeled as addiction capital, and which could be used to tackle the empirical problems that the consumer expenditure literature had experienced. That model has become the most widely used framework for empirical research by economists into the consumption of addictive goods, and, while the concept of rationality in addiction remains controversial, the Becker-Murphy framework also provides a basis for testing various alternative models of the consumption of addictive commodities, most notably those based on versions of time-inconsistent intertemporal decision making.
Paul Hansen and Nancy Devlin
Multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) is increasingly used to support healthcare decision-making. MCDA involves decision makers evaluating the alternatives under consideration based on the explicit weighting of criteria relevant to the overarching decision—in order to, depending on the application, rank (or prioritize) or choose between the alternatives. A prominent example of MCDA applied to healthcare decision-making that has received a lot of attention in recent years and is the main subject of this article is choosing which health “technologies” (i.e., drugs, devices, procedures, etc.) to fund—a process known as health technology assessment (HTA). Other applications include prioritizing patients for surgery, prioritizing diseases for R&D, and decision-making about licensing treatments. Most applications are based on weighted-sum models. Such models involve explicitly weighting the criteria and rating the alternatives on the criteria, with each alternative’s “performance” on the criteria aggregated using a linear (i.e., additive) equation to produce the alternative’s “total score,” by which the alternatives are ranked. The steps involved in a MCDA process are explained, including an overview of methods for scoring alternatives on the criteria and weighting the criteria. The steps are: structuring the decision problem being addressed, specifying criteria, measuring alternatives’ performance, scoring alternatives on the criteria and weighting the criteria, applying the scores and weights to rank the alternatives, and presenting the MCDA results, including sensitivity analysis, to decision makers to support their decision-making. Arguments recently advanced against using MCDA for HTA and counterarguments are also considered. Finally, five questions associated with how MCDA for HTA is operationalized are discussed: Whose preferences are relevant for MCDA? Should criteria and weights be decision-specific or identical for repeated applications? How should cost or cost-effectiveness be included in MCDA? How can the opportunity cost of decisions be captured in MCDA? How can uncertainty be incorporated into MCDA?
Vincenzo Atella and Joanna Kopinska
New sanitation and health technology applied to treatments, procedures, and devices is constantly revolutionizing epidemiological patterns. Since the early 1900s it has been responsible for significant improvements in population health by turning once-deadly diseases into curable or preventable conditions, by expanding the existing cures to more patients and diseases, and by simplifying procedures for both medical and organizational practices. Notwithstanding the benefits of technological progress for the population health, the innovation process is also an important driver of health expenditure growth across all countries. The technological progress generates additional financial burden and expands the volume of services provided, which constitutes a concern from an economic point of view. Moreover, the evolution of technology costs and their impact on healthcare spending is difficult to predict due to the revolutionary nature of many innovations and their adoption. In this respect, the challenge for policymakers is to discourage overadoption of ineffective, unnecessary, and inappropriate technologies. This task has been long carried out through regulation, which according to standard economic theory is the only response to market failures and socially undesirable outcomes of healthcare markets left on their own. The potential welfare loss of a market failure must be confronted with the costs of regulatory activities. While health technology evolution delivers important value for patients and societies, it will continue to pose important challenges for already overextended public finances.
Karla DiazOrdaz and Richard Grieve
Health economic evaluations face the issues of noncompliance and missing data. Here, noncompliance is defined as non-adherence to a specific treatment, and occurs within randomized controlled trials (RCTs) when participants depart from their random assignment. Missing data arises if, for example, there is loss-to-follow-up, survey non-response, or the information available from routine data sources is incomplete. Appropriate statistical methods for handling noncompliance and missing data have been developed, but they have rarely been applied in health economics studies. Here, we illustrate the issues and outline some of the appropriate methods with which to handle these with application to health economic evaluation that uses data from an RCT.
In an RCT the random assignment can be used as an instrument-for-treatment receipt, to obtain consistent estimates of the complier average causal effect, provided the underlying assumptions are met. Instrumental variable methods can accommodate essential features of the health economic context such as the correlation between individuals’ costs and outcomes in cost-effectiveness studies. Methodological guidance for handling missing data encourages approaches such as multiple imputation or inverse probability weighting, which assume the data are Missing At Random, but also sensitivity analyses that recognize the data may be missing according to the true, unobserved values, that is, Missing Not at Random.
Future studies should subject the assumptions behind methods for handling noncompliance and missing data to thorough sensitivity analyses. Modern machine-learning methods can help reduce reliance on correct model specification. Further research is required to develop flexible methods for handling more complex forms of noncompliance and missing data.
Jun Li and Edward C. Norton
Pay-for-performance programs have become a prominent supply-side intervention to improve quality and decrease spending in health care, touching upon long-term care, acute care, and outpatient care. Pay-for-performance directly targets long-term care, with programs in nursing homes and home health. Indirectly, pay-for-performance programs targeting acute care settings affect clinical practice for long-term care providers through incentives for collaboration across settings.
As a whole, pay-for-performance programs entail the identification of problems it seeks to solve, measurement of the dimensions it seeks to incentivize, methods to combine and translate performance to incentives, and application of the incentives to reward performance. For the long-term care population, pay-for-performance programs must also heed the unique challenges specific to the sector, such as patients with complex health needs and distinct health trajectories, and be structured to recognize the challenges of incentivizing performance improvement when there are multiple providers and payers involved in the care delivery.
Although empirical results indicate modest effectiveness of pay-for-performance in long-term care on improving targeted measures, some research has provided more clarity on the role of pay-for-performance design on the output of the programs, highlighting room for future research. Further, because health care is interconnected, the indirect effects of pay-for-performance programs on long-term care is an underexplored topic. As the scope of pay-for-performance in long-term care expands, both within the United States and internationally, pay-for-performance offers ample opportunities for future research.
James P. Ziliak
The interaction between poverty and social policy is an issue of longstanding interest in academic and policy circles. There are active debates on how to measure poverty, including where to draw the threshold determining whether a family is deemed to be living in poverty and how to measure resources available. These decisions have profound impacts on our understanding of the anti-poverty effectiveness of social welfare programs. In the context of the United States, focusing solely on cash income transfers shows little progress against poverty over the past 50 years, but substantive gains are obtained if the resource concept is expanded to include in-kind transfers and refundable tax credits. Beyond poverty, the research literature has examined the effects of social welfare policy on a host of outcomes such as labor supply, consumption, health, wealth, fertility, and marriage. Most of this work finds the disincentive effects of welfare programs on work, saving, and family structure to be small, but the income and consumption smoothing benefits to be sizable, and some recent work has found positive long-term effects of transfer programs on the health and education of children. More research is needed, however, on how to measure poverty, especially in the face of deteriorating quality of household surveys, on the long-term consequences of transfer programs, and on alternative designs of the welfare state.
Payment systems based on fixed prices have become the dominant model to finance hospitals across OECD countries. In the early 1980s, Medicare in the United States introduced the Diagnosis Related Groups (DRG) system. The idea was that hospitals should be paid a fixed price for treating a patient within a given diagnosis or treatment. The system then spread to other European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom) and high-income countries (e.g., Canada, Australia). The change in payment system was motivated by concerns over rapid health expenditure growth, and replaced financing arrangements based on reimbursing costs (e.g., in the United States) or fixed annual budgets (e.g., in the United Kingdom).
A more recent policy development is the introduction of pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes, which, in most cases, pay directly for higher quality. This is also a form of regulated price payment but the unit of payment is a (process or outcome) measure of quality, as opposed to activity, that is admitting a patient with a given diagnosis or a treatment.
Fixed price payment systems, either of the DRG type or the P4P type, affect hospital incentives to provide quality, contain costs, and treat the right patients (allocative efficiency). Quality and efficiency are ubiquitous policy goals across a range of countries.
Fixed price regulation induces providers to contain costs and, under certain conditions (e.g., excess demand), offer some incentives to sustain quality. But payment systems in the health sector are complex. Since its inception, DRG systems have been continuously refined. From their initial (around) 500 tariffs, many DRG codes have been split in two or more finer ones to reflect heterogeneity in costs within each subgroup. In turn, this may give incentives to provide excessive intensive treatments or to code patients in more remunerative tariffs, a practice known as upcoding. Fixed prices also make it financially unprofitable to treat high cost patients. This is particularly problematic when patients with the highest costs have the largest benefits from treatment. Hospitals also differ systematically in costs and other dimensions, and some of these external differences are beyond their control (e.g., higher cost of living, land, or capital). Price regulation can be put in place to address such differences.
The development of information technology has allowed constructing a plethora of quality indicators, mostly process measures of quality and in some cases health outcomes. These have been used both for public reporting, to help patients choose providers, but also for incentive schemes that directly pay for quality. P4P schemes are attractive but raise new issues, such as they might divert provider attention and unincentivized dimensions of quality might suffer as a result.
Pharmaceutical expenditure accounts for approximately 20% of healthcare expenditure across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Pharmaceutical products are regulated in all major global markets primarily to ensure product quality but also to regulate the reimbursed prices of insurance companies and central purchasing authorities that dominate this sector. Price regulation is justified as patent protection, which acts as an incentive to invest in R&D given the difficulties in appropriating the returns to such activity, creates monopoly rights to suppliers. Price regulation does itself reduce the ability of producers’ to recapture the substantial R&D investment costs incurred. Traditional price regulation through Ramsey pricing and yardstick competition is not efficient given the distortionary impact of insurance holdings, which are extensive in this sector and the inherent uncertainties that characterize Research and Development (R&D) activity. A range of other pricing regulations aimed at establishing pharmaceutical reimbursement that covers both dynamic efficiency (tied to R&D incentives) and static efficiency (tied to reducing monopoly rents) have been suggested. These range from cost-plus pricing, to internal and external reference pricing, rate-of-return pricing and, most recently value-based (essential health benefit maximization) pricing. Reimbursed prices reflecting value based pricing are, in some countries, associated with clinical treatment guidelines and cost-effectiveness analysis. Some countries are also requiring or allowing post-launch price regulation thorough a range of patient access agreements based on predefined population health targets and/or financial incentives. There is no simple, single solution to the determination of dynamic and static efficiency in this sector given the uncertainty associated with innovation, the large monopoly interests in the area, the distortionary impact of health insurance and the informational asymmetries that exist across providers and purchasers.
The concept of soft budget constraint, describes a situation where a decision-maker finds it impossible to keep an agent to a fixed budget. In healthcare it may refer to a (nonprofit) hospital that overspends, or to a lower government level that does not balance its accounts. The existence of a soft budget constraint may represent an optimal policy from the regulator point of view only in specific settings. In general, its presence may allow for strategic behavior that changes considerably its nature and its desirability. In this article, soft budget constraint will be analyzed along two lines: from a market perspective and from a fiscal federalism perspective.
The creation of an internal market for healthcare has made hospitals with different objectives and constraints compete together. The literature does not agree on the effects of competition on healthcare or on which type of organizations should compete. Public hospitals are often seen as less efficient providers, but they are also intrinsically motivated and/or altruistic. Competition for quality in a market where costs are sunk and competitors have asymmetric objectives may produce regulatory failures; for this reason, it might be optimal to implement soft budget constraint rules to public hospitals even at the risk of perverse effects. Several authors have attempted to estimate the presence of soft budget constraint, showing that they derive from different strategic behaviors and lead to quite different outcomes.
The reforms that have reshaped public healthcare systems across Europe have often been accompanied by a process of devolution; in some countries it has often been accompanied by widespread soft budget constraint policies. Medicaid expenditure in the United States is becoming a serious concern for the Federal Government and the evidence from other states is not reassuring. Several explanations have been proposed: (a) local governments may use spillovers to induce neighbors to pay for their local public goods; (b) size matters: if the local authority is sufficiently big, the center will bail it out; equalization grants and fiscal competition may be responsible for the rise of soft budget constraint policies. Soft budget policies may also derive from strategic agreements among lower tiers, or as a consequence of fiscal imbalances. In this context the optimal use of soft budget constraint as a policy instrument may not be desirable.
Joanna Coast and Manuela De Allegri
Qualitative methods are being used increasingly by health economists, but most health economists are not trained in these methods and may need to develop expertise in this area. This article discusses important issues of ontology, epistemology, and research design, before addressing the key issues of sampling, data collection, and data analysis in qualitative research. Understanding differences in the purpose of sampling between qualitative and quantitative methods is important for health economists, and the key notion of purposeful sampling is described. The section on data collection covers in-depth and semistructured interviews, focus-group discussions, and observation. Methods for data analysis are then discussed, with a particular focus on the use of inductive methods that are appropriate for economic purposes. Presentation and publication are briefly considered, before three areas that have seen substantial use of qualitative methods are explored: attribute development for discrete choice experiment, priority-setting research, and health financing initiatives.
Matteo Lippi Bruni, Irene Mammi, and Rossella Verzulli
In developed countries, the role of public authorities as financing bodies and regulators of the long-term care sector is pervasive and calls for well-planned and informed policy actions. Poor quality in nursing homes has been a recurrent concern at least since the 1980s and has triggered a heated policy and scholarly debate. The economic literature on nursing home quality has thoroughly investigated the impact of regulatory interventions and of market characteristics on an array of input-, process-, and outcome-based quality measures. Most existing studies refer to the U.S. context, even though important insights can be drawn also from the smaller set of works that covers European countries.
The major contribution of health economics to the empirical analysis of the nursing home industry is represented by the introduction of important methodological advances applying rigorous policy evaluation techniques with the purpose of properly identifying the causal effects of interest. In addition, the increased availability of rich datasets covering either process or outcome measures has allowed to investigate changes in nursing home quality properly accounting for its multidimensional features.
The use of up-to-date econometric methods that, in most cases, exploit policy shocks and longitudinal data has given researchers the possibility to achieve a causal identification and an accurate quantification of the impact of a wide range of policy initiatives, including the introduction of nurse staffing thresholds, price regulation, and public reporting of quality indicators. This has helped to counteract part of the contradictory evidence highlighted by the strand of works based on more descriptive evidence. Possible lines for future research can be identified in further exploration of the consequences of policy interventions in terms of equity and accessibility to nursing home care.
Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández
Socioeconomic gradients in health, cognitive, and socioemotional skills start at a very early age. Well-designed policy interventions in the early years can have a great impact in closing these gaps. Advancing this line of research requires a thorough understanding of how households make human capital investment decisions on behalf of their children, what their information set is, and how the market, the environment, and government policies affect them. A framework for this research should describe how children’s skills evolve and how parents make choices about the inputs that model child development, as well as the rationale for government interventions, including both efficiency and equity considerations.
Ijeoma Peace Edoka
Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) bear a disproportionately high burden of diseases in comparison to high-income countries, partly due to inequalities in the distribution of resources for health. Recent increases in health spending in these countries demonstrate a commitment to tackling the high burden of disease. However, evidence on the extent to which increased spending on health translates to better population health outcomes has been inconclusive. Some studies have reported improvements in population health with an increase in health spending whereas others have either found no effect or very limited effect to justify increased financial allocations to health. Differences across studies may be explained by differences in approaches adopted in estimating returns to health spending in LMICs.
Francisco H. G. Ferreira, Emanuela Galasso, and Mario Negre
“Shared prosperity” is a common phrase in current development policy discourse. Its most widely used operational definition—the growth rate in the average income of the poorest 40% of a country’s population—is a truncated measure of change in social welfare. A related concept, the shared prosperity premium—the difference between the growth rate of the mean for the bottom 40% and the growth rate in the overall mean—is similarly analogous to a measure of change in inequality. This article reviews the relationship between these concepts and the more established ideas of social welfare, poverty, inequality, and mobility.
Household survey data can be used to shed light on recent progress in terms of this indicator globally. During 2008–2013, mean incomes for the poorest 40% rose in 60 of the 83 countries for which we have data. In 49 of them, accounting for 65% of the sampled population, it rose faster than overall average incomes, thus narrowing the income gap.
In the policy space, there are examples both of “pre-distribution” policies (which promote human capital investment among the poor) and “re-distribution” policies (such as targeted safety nets), which when well-designed have a sound empirical track record of both raising productivity and improving well-being among the poor.
Ana Balsa and Carlos Díaz
Health behaviors are a major source of morbidity and mortality in the developed and much of the developing world. The social nature of many of these behaviors, such as eating or using alcohol, and the normative connotations that accompany others (i.e., sexual behavior, illegal drug use) make them quite susceptible to peer influence. This chapter assesses the role of social interactions in the determination of health behaviors. It highlights the methodological progress of the past two decades in addressing the multiple challenges inherent in the estimation of peer effects, and notes methodological issues that still need to be confronted. A comprehensive review of the economics empirical literature—mostly for developed countries—shows strong and robust peer effects across a wide set of health behaviors, including alcohol use, body weight, food intake, body fitness, teen pregnancy, and sexual behaviors. The evidence is mixed when assessing tobacco use, illicit drug use, and mental health. The article also explores the as yet incipient literature on the mechanisms behind peer influence and on new developments in the study of social networks that are shedding light on the dynamics of social influence. There is suggestive evidence that social norms and social conformism lie behind peer effects in substance use, obesity, and teen pregnancy, while social learning has been pointed out as a channel behind fertility decisions, mental health utilization, and uptake of medication. Future research needs to deepen the understanding of the mechanisms behind peer influence in health behaviors in order to design more targeted welfare-enhancing policies.
Richard C. van Kleef, Thomas G. McGuire, Frederik T. Schut, and Wynand P. M. M. van de Ven
Many countries rely on social health insurance supplied by competing insurers to enhance fairness and efficiency in healthcare financing. Premiums in these settings are typically community rated per health plan. Though community rating can help achieve fairness objectives, it also leads to a variety of problems due to risk selection, that is, actions by consumers and insurers to exploit “unpriced risk” heterogeneity. From the viewpoint of a consumer, unpriced risk refers to the gap between her expected spending under a health plan and the net premium for that plan. Heterogeneity in unpriced risk can lead to selection by consumers in and out of insurance and between high- and low-value plans. These forms of risk selection can result in upward premium spirals, inefficient take-up of basic coverage, and inefficient sorting of consumers between high- and low-value plans.
From the viewpoint of an insurer, unpriced risk refers to the gap between his expected costs under a certain contract and the revenues he receives for that contract. Heterogeneity in unpriced risk incentivizes insurers to alter their plan offerings in order to attract profitable people, resulting in inefficient plan design and possibly in the unavailability of high-quality care. Moreover, insurers have incentives to target profitable people via marketing tools and customer service, which—from a societal perspective—can be considered a waste of resources.
Common tools to counteract selection problems are risk equalization, risk sharing, and risk rating of premiums. All three strategies reduce unpriced risk heterogeneity faced by insurers and thus diminish selection actions by insurers such as the altering of plan offerings. Risk rating of premiums also reduces unpriced risk heterogeneity faced by consumers and thus mitigates selection in and out of insurance and between high- and low-value plans. All three strategies, however, come with trade-offs. A smart blend takes advantage of the strengths, while reducing the weaknesses of each strategy. The optimal payment system configuration will depend on how a regulator weighs fairness and efficiency and on how the healthcare system is organized.
Most developed nations provide generous coverage of care services, using either a tax financed healthcare system or social health insurance. Such systems pursue efficiency and equity in care provision. Efficiency means that expenditures are minimized for a given level of care services. Equity means that individuals with equal needs have equal access to the benefit package. In order to limit expenditures, social health insurance systems explicitly limit their benefit package. Moreover, most such systems have introduced cost sharing so that beneficiaries bear some cost when using care services. These limits on coverage create room for private insurance that complements or supplements social health insurance. Everywhere, social health insurance coexists along with voluntarily purchased supplementary private insurance. While the latter generally covers a small portion of health expenditures, it can interfere with the functioning of social health insurance. Supplementary health insurance can be detrimental to efficiency through several mechanisms. It limits competition in managed competition settings. It favors excessive care consumption through coverage of cost sharing and of services that are complementary to those included in social insurance benefits. It can also hinder achievement of the equity goals inherent to social insurance. Supplementary insurance creates inequality in access to services included in the social benefits package. Individuals with high incomes are more likely to buy supplementary insurance, and the additional care consumption resulting from better coverage creates additional costs that are borne by social health insurance. In addition, there are other anti-redistributive mechanisms from high to low risks. Social health insurance should be designed, not as an isolated institution, but with an awareness of the existence—and the possible expansion—of supplementary health insurance.
Albert A. Okunade and Ahmad Reshad Osmani
Healthcare cost encompasses expenditures on the totality of scarce resources (implicit and explicit) given up (or allocated) to produce healthcare goods (e.g., drugs and medical devices) and services (e.g., hospital care and physician office services are major components). Healthcare cost accounting components (sources and uses of funds) tend to differ but can be similar enough across most of the world countries. The healthcare cost concept usually differs for consumers, politicians and health policy decision-makers, health insurers, employers, and the government. All else given, inefficient healthcare production implies higher economic cost and lower productivity of the resources deployed in the process. Healthcare productivity varies across health systems of the world countries, the production technologies used, regulatory instruments, and institutional settings. Healthcare production often involves some specific (e.g., drugs and medical devices, information and communication technologies) or general technology for diagnosing, treating, or curing diseases in order to improve or restore human health conditions.
In the last half century, the different healthcare systems of the world countries have undergone fundamental transformations in the structural designs, institutional regulations, and socio-economic and demographic dimensions. The nations have allocated a rising share of total economic resources or incomes (i.e., Gross National Product, or GDP) to the healthcare sector and are consequently enjoying substantial increases in population health status and life expectancies. There are complex and interacting linkages among escalating healthcare costs, longer life expectancies, technological progress (or “the march of science”), and sectoral productivities in the health services sectors of the advanced economies. Healthcare policy debates often concentrate on cost-containment strategies and search for improved efficient resource allocation and equitable distribution of the sector’s outputs. Consequently, this contribution is a broad review of the body of literature on technological progress, productivity, and cost: three important dimensions of the evolving modern healthcare systems. It provides a logical integration of three strands of work linking healthcare cost to technology and research evidence on sectoral productivity measurements. Finally, some important aspects of the existing study limitations are noted to motivate new research directions for future investigations to explore in the growing health sector economies.
In the coming years, it is predicted that there will be a significant increase in the number of people living with dementia and consequently, the demand for health and social care services. Given the budget constraints facing health systems, it is anticipated that economic analysis will play an increasingly important role in informing decisions regarding the provision of services for people with dementia. However, compared with other conditions and diseases, research in dementia has been relatively limited. While in the past this may have been related to an assumption that dementia was a natural part of aging, there are features of dementia that make applying research methods particularly challenging. A number of economic methods have been applied to dementia, including cost-of-illness analysis and economic evaluation; however, methodological issues in this area persist. These include reaching a consensus on how best to measure and value informal care, how to capture the many impacts and costs of the condition as the disease progresses, and how to measure health outcomes. Addressing these existing methodological issues will help realize the potential of economic analysis in answering difficult questions around care for people with dementia.
The rise in obesity and other food-related chronic diseases has prompted public-health officials of local communities, national governments, and international institutions to pay attention to the regulation of food supply and consumer behavior. A wide range of policy interventions has been proposed and tested since the early 21st century in various countries. The most prominent are food taxation, health education, nutritional labeling, behavioral interventions at point-of-decision, advertising, and regulations of food quality and trade. While the standard neoclassical approach to consumer rationality provides limited arguments in favor of public regulations, the recent development of behavioral economics research extends the scope of regulation to many marketing practices of the food industry. In addition, behavioral economics provides arguments in favor of taxation, easy-to-use front-of-pack labels, and the use of nudges for altering consumer choices. A selective but careful review of the empirical literature on taxation, labeling, and nudges suggests that a policy mixing these tools may produce some health benefits. More specifically, soft-drink taxation, front-of-pack labeling policies, regulations of marketing practices, and eating nudges based on affect or behavior manipulations are often effective methods for reducing unhealthy eating.
The economic research faces important challenges. First, the lack of a proper control group and exogenous sources of variations in policy variables make evaluation very difficult. Identification is challenging as well, with data covering short time periods over which markets are observed around slowly moving equilibrium. In addition, truly exogenous supply or demand shocks are rare events. Second, structural models of consumer choices cannot provide accurate assessment of the welfare benefits of public policies because they consider perfectly rational agents and often ignore the dynamic aspects of food decisions, especially consumer concerns over health. Being able to obtain better welfare evaluation of policies is a priority. Third, there is a lack of research on the food industry response to public policies. Some studies implement empirical industrial organization models to infer the industry strategic reactions from market data. A fruitful avenue is to extend this approach to analyze other key dimensions of industrial strategies, especially decisions regarding the nutritional quality of food. Finally, the implementation of nutritional policies yields systemic consequences that may be underestimated. They give rise to conflicts between public health and trade objectives and alter the business models of the food sector. This may greatly limit the external validity of ex-ante empirical approaches. Future works may benefit from household-, firm-, and product-level data collected in rapidly developing economies where food markets are characterized by rapid transitions, the supply is often more volatile, and exogenous shocks occur more frequently.