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Can a fat tax curb obesity?

Diabetes, General Nutrition, Weight - Body Shape and Composition, Healthy Eating
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Late last year, Denmark began taxing foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fats in an attempt to curb the nations growing obesity problem. These foods include butter, meat, milk, cheese, oil and processed foods. Doctors in the UK are now considering similar measures to stem the rise of obesity. Obesity is a growing issue in Australia with over 60% of adults classified as overweight or obese. Should Australia consider a tax on fat?

What is a fat tax?

It is a tax on foods high in fat or saturated fat with the intention of reducing the consumption of those foods. The tax can be on categories of foods high in saturated fat or on the percentage of saturated fat in all foods.

Why might a tax on food fat NOT work?

1.    Obesity is a complex and multi-factorial issue - fat consumption is not necessarily the cause of obesity.

The Department of Health and Ageing believes obesity is caused by decreased physical activity levels, increasing energy density of modern diets, sedentary lifestyles, quitting smoking, lower education level, heavy marketing of energy dense foods and fast food outlets, adverse social and economic conditions and sugar sweetened soft drinks and juices.

2. There is a lack of supporting evidence that a fat tax will be effective.

The World Health Organization’s report on the effectiveness of food/fat taxes in 2006 illustrated there was no direct evidence that a fat tax would work in Australia and no direct scientific evidence to prove a causal relationship that food taxes would affect food consumption. The paper concluded that there was insufficient evidence for implementing national or regional policy in the form of taxes to reduce the consumption of foods high in saturated fats or to increase consumption of healthy foods. Furthermore, a study on fat taxes in 2007 by Chouinard et al. predicted that a 50% tax on dairy lowered fat intake from dairy products by only 3%, approximately 2–3 g/day, and thus had no effect on body weight.                   

3. A tax on fat would be difficult to implement.

To be effective this tax would need ongoing evaluation by governing bodies to calculate levels of saturated fat in particular food items with the food manufacturers. To evaluate each saturated fatty food on the market would need a huge amount of man-power, laboratories and resources. Legislation would need to work with all food manufacturers to ensure the tax is uniformly applied. The money needed for this would be significant.

4. It would have a greater impact on lower socio-economic groups.

This tax would be regressive, in other words, a tax applied uniformly across the social classes. Individuals on lower incomes will end up spending a greater proportion of their money on food as opposed to the individuals on higher incomes. This is because refined grains, added sugars, and added fats are among the lowest-cost sources of dietary energy. They are inexpensive, good tasting, and convenient. The more nutrient dense lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit generally cost more. A study in 2004 by Leicester & Windmeijer estimated that the rich would spend less than 0.1% of their income on a fat tax in the UK compared to 0.7% for the poor.                   

5. A reduction in fat consumption will not necessarily treat obesity

In the 1960s, fats and oils supplied Americans with 45% calories; 13% were obese and less than 1% had type 2 diabetes. Today Americans get 33% of their calories from fats and oils; yet 34% are obese and 8% have type 2 diabetes. The Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study have shown no link between the overall percentage of calories from fat and any important health outcome, including heart disease, and weight gain.

What about alternative measures to combat the obesity epidemic?

Public health campaigns should always use evidence-based practice and there is no direct or scientific evidence that signifies a food tax will work.  Money could be better spent on alternative measures to combat the obesity epidemic that have evidence for their effectiveness. Evidence demonstrates that improved health outcomes are associated with multi-factorial interventions that target overweight and obese people at high risk of chronic diseases NOT everyone!

Author: Emily Greenfield


Denmark introduces food fat tax http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-10-02/denmark-introduces-food-fat-tax/3205392

Australian Government. Department of Health and Ageing. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2006. Optimising diets for lowering chronic disease risk; p.254-5.

Chouinard, H. H., Davis, D. E., LaFrance, J. T. and Perloff, J. M. (2007) Fat taxes: big money for small change. Forum for Health Economics, 10 (2): 1-28.

Creighton, R. (2010) Fat taxes. Journal of Legal Medicine, 31 (1): 123-136.

Darmon, N., Briend, A. and Drewnowski, A. (2004)  Energy dense diets are associated with lower diet costs: a community study of French adults. Public Health Nutrition, 7 (1):21-27.

Goodman, C. and Anise, A. (2006) What is known about the effectiveness of economic instruments to reduce consumption of foods high in saturated fats and other energy-dense foods for preventing and treating obesity? Health Evidence Network Report, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen; http://www.euro.who.int/document/e88909.pdf, accessed [20.08.2011].

Harvard School of Public Health (2011) Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good;

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-full-story/index.html, accessed [19.08.2011].

Leicester, A. and Windmeijer, F. (2004) The 'fat tax': economic incentives to reduce obesity. IFS Briefing Notes BN49. Institute for Fiscal Studies: London, UK 

Nordstrom, J. and Thunstrom, L. (2011) Can targeted food taxes and subsidies improve the diet? Distributional effects among income groups. Food Policy, 36: 259-271.

Obesity and overweight fact sheet. (2003)  Geneva, World Health Organisation; http://www.who.int/hpr/NPH/docs/gs_obesity.pdf, accessed [20.08.2011].



Can a fat tax curb obesity?