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Fat Tax

Posted Oct 05 2011 1:03pm

“Fat” taxes aren’t anything new in the United States. Many cities have proposed taxing soda (few have succeeded) and New York City even went as far as banning the use of trans fat in restaurants.

But Denmark’s new tax on actual fat is a new spin. The new Danish law set the tax rate at 16 Danish kroner per kilogram of saturated fat in a food (about $1.29 per pound of saturated fat) when the saturated fat content exceeds 2.3%. Tax adds about 12 cents to a bag of chips, 39 cents to a small package of butter, and 40 cents to the price of a hamburger. What is significant is that this was passed for the entire country and targets a particular part of the food supply, something that hasn’t been done before. Danish law also bans trans fat and has set a tax on sugary food items like candy and soda.

The article “ Fat Taxes: Big Money for Small Change ” found that a 10% tax on high fat dairy products would only decrease consumption by less than 1%. Dairy foods are relatively high in demand, indicating that taxes are not likely to change consumer behaviors.  A study examining soda taxes in the US found similar results. A tax of 4% on soda does not substantially affect levels of soda consumption or obesity rates.

France recently proposed a Country wide tax on soda: 1 euro per can. The legislation hasn’t yet moved forward, but created quite the controversy when Coca-Cola threatened to back out of a $24 million investment. There is a large amount of speculation about the soda industry’s involvement and powerful lobbying in the US, so this should come as no surprise.

But the questions that needs to be asked is are “fat” taxes really getting to the heart of the problem?

Taxing one food item like soda or butter might slightly decrease consumption. But it is not going to change food preferences, portion sizes, and cooking habits.  Let’s use smoking as an example. Smoking rates have decreased in the US and states all have a set tax on cigarettes. But approximately 20% of the population still smokes. So even taxing cigarettes $1-2 more wasn’t enough to eliminate an unhealthy behavior. Dietary changes aren’t so black and white, but the concept holds true. If a person wants a McDonalds hamburger because it is what they are accustomed to eating, they will likely be willing to pay a few extra cents.

Fat taxes wont address the decreased rates of physical activity and increased use of cars/buses for transportation. It wont make people have more active work places, leading them to spend less time sitting at a desk. People gain weight because they consume more calories than they burn. A large dinner without the use of butter isn’t going to make a huge caloric change that will lead to weight loss.

I think it’s good that politicians and scientists are examining ways to improve Americans’ diets. But maybe instead of making “bad” food more expensive, we should teach people how to use fresh produce. Or maybe we all just need to eat a whole lot less.

Because let’s be honest, I’m not about to give up butter any time soon.

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