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By Tim Williams
An Oxford researcher is examining the implementation of a “fat tax” for the New Zealand government amid possibilities of a similar measure in the UK.
Mike Rayner, director of the health promotion research group at Oxford University, is currently helping New Zealand with how it might be able to implement a tax on junk food.
Earlier this month, David Cameron said that the UK should “look at” similar plans to tackle what some experts describe as an epidemic of obesity.
Denmark has recently become the first western European country to introduce a fat tax, with a levy on saturated fat in food products, of £1.86 per 2.2lb of fat. It will add about 26p to a small packet of butter and 10p to a burger.
But Rayner sees problems with the Danish system. He said: “If you do what the Danes did, you end up killing people. If you focus on a single nutrient, you could have unexpected consequences.
“You should be very careful when you design a tax. I am in favour of junk food taxes, but I think you should tax a food depending on how healthy it is, not just a single nutrient. You should assess the nutritional value of it. The exception to that, I believe, is fizzy drinks, because people would end up drinking water or juice. There is no unhealthy alternative, but this is not the case with saturated fat. If you tax butter, they might just switch to margarine, which is not necessarily better for them.” His briefing note warned that some might switch to salty foods instead, which would cause cardiovascular problems.
He did not see the fact that it may disproportionally affect the poorest as an obstacle: “It is also the same with alcohol tax and tobacco tax – all indirect taxes hit those on poorest incomes most. To compensate, you could change the tax system – that is what Australia is proposing with a carbon tax.
“The poorest are also most likely to have the most health benefits as they tend to eat the worst food.”
Hungary already has a tax on food that is high in calories but with little nutritional value, and France and some American states have a tax on soft drinks.
As well as New Zealand, the Netherlands, Finland and Australia are also considering similar measures.
David Haslam, Chair of the National Obesity Forum (NOF) was sceptical and said: “A fat tax is fraught with complications. Who pays, the consumer or the manufacturer? Who benefits, the public or the Government?
“The prospect of a fat tax is ill considered and flawed, although some public health measures do have to be introduced as a matter of urgency, such as moving sweets and crisps from the checkout in Marks and Spencer. But my fundamental objection is that a fat tax is misdirected; no-one has ever suggested a carbohydrate tax, which actually would make a difference!”
Tam Fry, Honorary Chairman of the Child Growth Foundation and spokesman for the NOF said: “We would support a fat tax, but not only on fat, but sugar and salt – this is in line with advice given to the World Health Organisation and UN for the defeat of obesity globally.
“Whatever tax implemented must be applied sensibly in order not to disadvantage people from poorer backgrounds who depend on processed food to live. But particularly indulgence food – that is chocolate, sugar, cakes etc. – which are not essential for life, should be ripe for taxation.
“You could include refined carbohydrates and fizzy drinks, which are full of sugary deposits – all should be taxed as a direct message to industry and the population that excessive use of all this is bad for health.”
Alex Mullins, a third year at St Anne’s, said: “It’s a shame the state has to impose measures which we should all impose on an individual level, and it’s equally a shame that the ‘healthiest’ organic food is often more than twice the price of processed fast food goods. Discouraging fast food nationally can only be truly effective if we encourage slow-food locally.”
One first year student at Lady Margaret Hall said: “I would definitely support a ‘fat tax’. You could use the money raised to alleviate the burden on the general taxpayer for the NHS and make those most likely to need obesity treatment pay the biggest contribution.”
He added: “I don’t think the government should tell us how to live our lives, but if we expect the state to treat us because of our bad decisions, it is reasonable to have to pay a bit of tax towards it.”
But another first year disagreed, saying: “If I want to get a take-away occasionally, I don’t think that the government should punish me for it.”
Such measures have previously been opposed by food manufacturers and the farming community.
An estimated £4.2 billion is spent by the NHS on obesity treatment now and the Department of Health expects this to reach £6.4 billion this Parliament. Currently, the overall estimated cost of obesity to the UK economy is £16 billion.