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© 2020 Blakely et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Background Food taxes and subsidies are one intervention to address poor diets. Price elasticity (PE) matrices are commonly used to model the change in food purchasing. Usually a PE matrix is generated in one setting then applied to another setting with differing starting consumptions and prices of foods. This violates econometric assumptions resulting in likely mis-estimation of total food consumption. In this paper we demonstrate this problem, canvass possible options for rescaling all consumption after applying a PE matrix, and illustrate the use of a total food expenditure elasticity (TFEe; the expenditure elasticity for all food combined given the policy-induced change in the total price of food). We use case studies of: NZ$2 per 100g saturated fat (SAFA) tax, NZ$0.4 per 100g sugar tax, and a 20% fruit and vegetable (F&V) subsidy. Methods We estimated changes in food purchasing using a NZ PE matrix applied conventionally, and then with TFEe adjustment. Impacts were quantified for pre- to post-policy changes in total food expenditure and health adjusted life years (HALYs) for the total NZ population alive in 2011 over the rest of their lifetime using a multistate lifetable model. Results Two NZ studies gave TFEe’s of 0.68 and 0.83, with international estimates ranging from 0.46 to 0.90 (except a UK outlier of 0.04). Without TFEe adjustment, total food expenditure decreased with the tax policies and increased with the F&V subsidy–implausible directions of shift given economic theory and the external TFEe estimates. After TFEe adjustment, HALY gains reduced by a third to a half for the two taxes and reversed from an apparent health loss to a health gain for the F&V subsidy. With TFEe adjustment, HALY gains (in 1000’s) were: 1,805 (95% uncertainty interval 1,337 to 2,340) for the SAFA tax; 1,671 (1,220 to 2,269) for the sugar tax; and 953 (453 to 1,308) for the F&V subsidy. Conclusions If PE matrices are applied in settings beyond where they were derived, additional scaling is likely required. We suggest that the TFEe is a useful scalar, but we also encourage other researchers to examine this issue and propose alternative options.

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