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Experts call for ‘fat tax’ of at least 20%

Tax of at least 20% on unhealthy foods needed to cut consumption

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A tax of at least 20% on ‘unhealthy’ foods and drinks, ideally coupled with subsidies for healthier foods, would be needed to have a significant effect on population levels of obesity and heart disease, say UK experts.

Two separate analyses published today on bmj.com discuss the potential effects on people’s health of different levels of taxation, across various categories of foods and nutrients.

Oliver Mytton from the University of Oxford, and colleagues, looked at the global evidence on the effect of health-related food taxes, which have already been introduced in several countries – notably Denmark and Hungary – and are being considered in the UK.

They said the evidence on health gains supports taxing a wide range of foods and nutrients rather than a narrow few.

They found that the strongest evidence is for a tax on sugary drinks. In one US study, sales of sugar-sweetened drinks fell by 26% in a canteen after a 35% tax was imposed on them – but Mytton points out that people might then have consumed more of these drinks elsewhere.

A study in which the effects of taxation on health were modelled showed that a 20% tax on sugary drinks in the US would reduce the level of obesity by 3.5%.

Another calculated that in the UK, extending VAT (17.5% at the time) to unhealthy foods could reduce annual deaths from heart disease by up to 2700.

The authors warn against taking a simplistic view of ‘fat taxes’ based on modelling. They write: “Other compensatory behaviour that might increase energy intake or reduce energy expenditure are not well captured in most models … Understanding the overall effect on health is complicated and depends on mapping the effect of multiple nutrient changes, including energy intake, to multiple health outcomes.”

They conclude: “Health-related food taxes could improve health. Existing evidence suggests that taxes are likely to shift consumption in the desired direction, although policy makers need to be wary of changes in other important nutrients. However, the tax would need to be at least 20% to have a significant effect on population health.”

In the second paper, Corinna Hawkes, food policy and public health specialist at the Centre for Food Policy at City University London, points out the error of the expectation that people’s diets would become healthier with increasing globalisation of the food supply chain over the past few decades.

She calls for policies that “focus on reducing the incentives that companies have to encourage consumers (particularly children) to consume too much and too many of the ‘eat less’ foods through policies to improve the composition of food products, the availability of healthy food out of the home, food prices, and marketing and promotion.”

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