Should We Impose A Fat Tax On Unhealthy Foods?

A hot topic on the Stephen Nolan radio show recently was the possibility of imposing a “fat tax” on unhealthy foods.

It’s the result of a new report here in Northern Ireland, by John Compton (Chair of Health), which recommends, amongst other things, taxing items like potato chips more heavily, as a way of making people eat better.

According to John, when you adjust price, you change behavior.

This concept isn’t unique to Northern Ireland. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has also suggested a fat tax may be on the cards right across Britain.

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A far as I know, Denmark were the first country to introduce the fat tax. Their method has been to tax foods containing more than 2.3 percent saturated fat.

This targets products like butter, milk, cheese, pizza, meat, oil and processed food.

It’s crazy to lump butter, milk, cheese, and oil in with foods like pizza and highly processed foods.

I’ve no doubt, drastic action needs to be taken to deal with the rising levels of overweight and obesity in this country. However, a fat tax is not the answer.

A fat tax similar to that imposed in Denmark, would be a regressive move. It has potential to hit hardest on those who have no need to be penalized.

Take the elderly as an example.

Many of the older people I’ve seen in clinic are underweight. This is a serious health condition, and they are, in fact, encouraged to eat foods that are energy dense (full fat milk, cheese, butter, cream, etc.) to boost their weight.

Also, what about small children?

Full fat dairy products are essential for them. So, why should parents pay more for these foods, when they are actually recommended by the department of health for this age group?

Even if the fat tax were to work slightly different to Denmark’s model, here in the UK, research suggests that for food taxes to change behavior, they have to be extremely high.

I don’t think that’s a feasible option.

Previous research by Brownell and Frieden, noted that it would take a one-penny-per-ounce tax to change behavior. Anything lower serves to bring in extra revenue, but is unlikely to reduce intake of so-called unhealthy foods.

Taxing Doesn’t Teach About Healthier Choices

For this idea to be a success, people would need to start making better food choices, as a result of the imposed tax.

I cannot see how increased prices automatically equals healthier food choices.

I mean, how much would an “unhealthy food” need to increase in price before it would stop you eating it? I’m guessing for most people, if they want it enough, they’ll buy it anyway.

The cost of healthy food is certainly an issue for us to consider. While some healthy foods are cheaper than unhealthy foods, others are not.

It also takes a certain amount of re-education on what foods to choose and how to cook those foods, if you haven’t been accustomed to eating in this way.

If your diet has predominately been one of take away foods, or ready prepared meals, the switch over to home cooked meals may be a lot more difficult for some people than you might think — many don’t know how to cook from scratch, nor have the inclination to do so.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for people to change their habits, I wholeheartedly believe it is. However, imposing a fat tax won’t necessarily equal healthier choices, for some groups of individuals.

There is also the possibility that a fat tax on certain foods, could actually force people to make worse food choices.

Many of the lower fat, and fat free foods available are unhealthy for a different reason.

For example, fat free yogurt is loaded with sugar, and/or artificial sweeteners. Many margarines actually contain trans fats. This is arguably more harmful to health than saturated fats.

If you target fat only, what about refined grains, sugar, and salt? Many would suggest these are more harmful to health than fat.

Then again, if you start imposing tax on fat, sugar, grains, salt… where does it stop?

“Big Brother” Government

I dislike the idea that our government should play “big brother” so-to-speak, forcing us to change what we eat, or else pay more.

Most foods can be eaten as part of a healthy diet. We should remember that any food can make us overweight, or obese, when it is abused.

The secret to a healthier lifestyle is moderation, and learning to manage our diet to reduce the risk of disease. A fat tax can’t teach that.

This is why community education programs are so important, where children and adults learn what a healthy diet is, how to cook, and generally what good health looks like, on a day to day basis.

People also need to start taking responsibility for their own actions.

We can’t blame food manufacturers and fast food outlets for the obesity problem alone. Each of us have a choice of what we put into our body each day.

That’s the point, though… it is our choice, not our Government’s choice to make.

On the other side of the coin, if someone eats a healthy diet most of the time, exercises regularly, and generally has a good level of health, why should they be forced to pay more to occasionally eat a bag of potato chips, or a bar of chocolate?

Make Healthy Food Cheaper

A better solution would be to make healthy food considerably cheaper.

That way everyone benefits, no matter what social bracket they fall into, or what state their current health is in.

I find myself wondering if this is more about fattening the government’s income, than slimming people’s waistlines.

Call me a cynic, if you like.

What do you think of the fat tax idea? Would it work in your country?

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Vicki December 16, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I totally agree with you. I agree that the rise of obesity needs tackled. But I don’t think that a fat tax is the answer. Like you say, some people eat healthy MOST of the time and an odd junk food meal is fine. Plus if an overweight person really wants those foods, I don’t think a small charge will stop them.

I see a need to go back to basics. Many kids nowadays grow up never learning to cook and their parents can’t either, as we hit the generation growing up with the mass rise of processed foods. Bring back cooking to schools – and I mean teaching them a wide range of healthy meals, along with some sweet treats, rather than focussing only on cakes, biscuits, muffins and brownies, like some schools do. They don’t have to train to be michelin starred chefs, but learning some basics like a few pasta or rice dishes, some interesting ways to cook veg (like a simple but healthy stir fry), some basic soups and various healthy dishes (perhaps learning things to do with fish other than frying in batter) and the other basics will not harm anyone.

And yes, try making fresh and frozen fruit and veg, wholemeal bread, potatoes etc. cheaper.

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Melanie December 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I totally agree with you, Vicki. Cooking in schools is so important. I love what Jamie Oliver did, if you saw that program? Very inspirational.

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Cathy in NZ December 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Government taxes were put on cigarettes to curb this habit… people moaned about the cost rising, but within a few months, it was accepted and no one paid attention. No less smokers were found.

Same with fat tax so on potato crisps (chips here) – there would be moans then your budget would just accommodate it all.

What needs to happen is more education because I too eat a selection of foods – in moderation as balance and self- management is the key…after you have learnt the basics.

It’s like people insisting I should rejoin a gym…I remember those skills I learnt when I was in a programme and I apply them now as best as I’m able. In fact I think my brisk walking is much more beneficial than doing the same on a treadmill listening to piped music!

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Melanie December 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm

It smells of a money making scheme to me unfortunately.

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Cathy in NZ December 21, 2011 at 8:10 pm

from a gov’t point of view…yep!

just heard that cigarettes are taking another hike from Jan 1st when the average packet of 20 will be $15.00

Also the free bus will only be free if you have a HOP card, everyone else needs to pay 50c adult, 30c child…

The HOP card is linked to a computer system which then of course, analyse who is getting it/when etc…

another “big boy” scheme…

but nothing is now going to happen about lowering cost of healthy food, because that political party didn’t win the elections, held recently!!!

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