Denmark’s introduction of a “fat tax” (affecting foods containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fats) has drawn international attention, not to mention a call from Greens leader Bob Brown for Australia to consider such a measure.
The DK move has been widely billed as an international first, but as this recent report in The Lancet makes clear, a number of countries are moving towards increasing taxes on unhealthy foods and drinks.
Taxes (and subsidies) have long had an impact upon the prices and uptake of various foods.
In Finland in the 1970s, for example, as part of the acclaimed North Karelia project, taxation laws were changed so that low-fat spreads could compete with butter. Previously margarine had been taxed to keep its price equivalent to butter, to protect the local dairy industry. Importantly, this was only one element of comprehensive and sustained efforts which proved successful in promoting better health.
So, would a fat tax be good for our health?
Below are some analyses: from nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, the Obesity Policy Coalition’s Jane Martin, excerpts from two relevant papers on the use of taxation as a intervention for public health nutrition (leave your email if you’d like a copy of the full papers), and a snippet from an article at The Conversation by Deakin University’s Gary Sacks.
Other measures should be tried first
A couple of thoughts on the sat fat tax. My preference would be:
(a) better labelling (traffic lights) as step 1
(b) banning ads for junk foods during programs popular with kids as step 2
(c) tax on foods such as soft drinks. crisps, junk foods – as step 3
It will be interesting to see if the Danish experiment works.
The sat fat tax has two possible advantages:
(a) increases prices on foods high in sat fat (Note that it has been set at a level that will not affect regular milk, contrary to claims from some commentators such as AFGC
(b) it will alert people to foods that contain sat fat because they will be subject to a price rise.
However, I personally think any such tax should apply also to foods/drinks with added sugar.
Denmark’s fat tax: a sweetener for taxing soft drinks?
Denmark’s fat tax is a real-world experiment that could help shape obesity prevention policies here in Australia, and potentially sweeten the palate for a soft drink tax.
Our obesity crisis is only set to worsen with one quarter of children overweight or obese, and more than 60% of adults falling into these categories. We live in an increasingly obesogenic environment where the availability of cheap, tasty and highly calorific food is having a major impact on rates of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The decision by Denmark to tax all products containing more than 2.3% saturated fat is bold indeed. Rarely do we get to see such policies played out in the real world and the opportunities to learn from this are very promising.
Taxation is always contentious and certainly it’s not a measure that should be applied lightly or in isolation. Obesity is a complex issue that requires a comprehensive approach addressing pricing, marketing, availability, labelling and education. However, we do know that tax works – food pricing has the capacity to shift consumer preferences towards healthier options, thereby improving public health outcomes.
Here in Australia important lessons can be learned from the impact of taxes on alcohol and tobacco. In both cases, increases in real prices have had the effect of reducing consumption, particularly among young people and adults with low income.
Deciding what to tax is fraught with debate. Denmark’s decision to focus on saturated fat was made after an examination of data on diets but there has been some disagreement as to whether this could work here in Australia.
Another option would be to identify the foods that contribute most to overweight and obesity. There is extensive evidence of a strong association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and BMI, overweight and obesity (among adults and children). And with no nutritional value whatsoever and high consumption it seems ripe for taxation – certainly evidence is emerging that price influences soft drink consumption. It has been estimated for example that a 10% increase in soft drink prices could reduce consumption by 8 to 10%. It has also been estimated that a 20% tax would reduce body weight by 0.7 to 1.2kg per year.
Of course the fear with a ‘fat tax’ is that you target those who can least afford it – the highest consumers of unhealthy food and sugar sweetened soft drink are young people and those on low incomes.
That’s why any tax must be balanced with a subsidy on healthy food. The subsidy may apply to reduce the cost of fruit and vegetables to all consumers, or take the form of vouchers (similar to Food Stamps in the US) could be provided to low-income earners to purchase a basket of healthy foods each week. Subsiding healthy food would not only change behaviour, but would protect and improve levels of food security among lower socio-economic groups.
The National Preventative Health Task Force has recommended the government investigate options for taxing unhealthy foods and subsidising healthy foods.
Whatever lessons we learn from Denmark in the long-term that fact is a comprehensive review of taxation as it relates to food is overdue, and should be investigated as a priority.
* Jane Martin is senior policy advisor for the Obesity Policy Coalition. This article was first published in the Crikey bulletin.
Some global context for public health nutrition taxation
This paper by Australian researchers, published last year in Public Health Nutrition, contains much useful context on global trends in tax policy for those interested in using the tax system to advance public health nutrition.
It suggests that public health nutritionists can contribute to simplifying tax administration by making proposals that are simple to implement and make use of existing tax policy mechanisms and tax rates.
It argues that understanding global priorities for tax reform can also highlight less obvious, more acceptable strategies that can help to achieve nutritional goals. For example, rather than proposing additional tax increases, it might be possible to remove VAT exemptions from unhealthy foods. Similarly, instead of proposing new exemptions to the VAT, tariffs on healthy foods could be reduced.
The paper also says that complementing taxes on unhealthy food with subsidies for healthy foods could help to reduce the burden on those most affected by increases in food prices.
Taxing food: implications for public health nutrition
This 2005 overview of food taxes by English researchers says taxing food is a regressive policy because it affects the poor more than the well-off, as the proportion of a household budget allocated to all foods tends to decline with increasing income.
Other conclusions include:
. Small taxes with clear and unambiguous intent used to promote the health of key groups, such as children, are more likely to receive public support; although in our view they may, on their own, be an ineffective means of tackling the problems with overeating and consumption of energy-dense foods.
. Food taxes as a stand-alone initiative to counteract obesity are likely to fail. They are, on their own, a simple solution to a complex problem. They should be considered alongside other policy initiatives such as restructuring of food subsidies though mechanisms such as the Common Agricultural Policy and restrictions on advertising. It is not just food taxes that need to be considered but also the corresponding issue of subsidising the growth, production and consumption of healthier foods.
. More research is needed on the impact of food taxes on food choice especially among low-income consumers, children and the area of impulse and snack buying.
. Taxing food (and subsidies) should be considered within closed systems such as schools, canteens and the workplace. The evidence for such approaches has some basis in the literature.
. The purpose of a food tax can be based on a population approach as opposed to an initiative designed to change individual behaviour. Food taxes imposed on food manufacturing could influence the production of foodstuffs, which could have a population effect. Further consideration needs to be given to this aspect of food taxes.
Gary Sacks, Research Fellow, Deakin Population Health at Deakin University
…One single measure alone is unlikely to solve the problem. To make a difference to obesity levels, you need a whole suite of interventions – changing the price of unhealthy foods through a tax is just one measure.
Junk food taxes are just one of many measures needed to halt rising levels of obesity.
We also need to consider other interventions such as restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods, improving food labelling (with a simple traffic light labelling system), and implementing public education campaigns, among other things.
Our modelling clearly shows that putting a tax on unhealthy foods and subsidising fruit and vegetables would end up making the population a lot healthier in the long term.
Importantly, it would have higher benefits for people in lower socioeconomic groups who are disproportionately affected by obesity and many other health issues.