I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Denmark is being a world pioneer yet again (it is a world leader in wind power, bicycles, and more) — it is implementing a “fat tax.” The tax is actually on fatty foods… not fat people. The tax applies to all foods that include more than 2.3% saturated fat (saturated fat is most commonly found in animal products — meat, butter, etc). It’s ironic that Denmark is the first to implement such a tax, given that Danes are much less obese than the average European, and Europeans are much less obese than the average North American. However, Denmark’s average life expectancy has fallen below the international average, 79, and saturated fats gave been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
How Does the Fat Tax Work?
If you’re wondering, “Does this include products that contain products that contain products that include saturated fats,” yes, it does. Getting the new prices right has been a tremendous challenge, apparently, both because of the difficulty of getting everyone to find out and declare how much fat is in their products and because of the technical challenge of adjusting all of the computer systems and prices.
Believe it or not, it was a right-wing government in power when the tax was passed. (Can you imagine a right-wind government in the U.S. imposing such a tax?) But the tax was actually approved by nearly 90% of parliament!
The revenue raised from the tax is, logically, supposed to go into obesity-fighting programs.
Other Countries Likely to Follow
Denmark is the first country to impose such a tax, but several others are reportedly close behind it (i.e. Finland and Romania). Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria have also completely banned trans fats, and Hungary has imposed a tax on foods with high levels of sugar, salt and carbohydrates. Denmark was the first to ban trans fats, in 2004, and it has seen a 30% decrease in cardiovascular disease since then.
There’s a push in the UK to impose a fat tax, as well. The UK has the most obese population in all of Europe. “Fewer than 10% of Danes are obese, below the 15% European average, according to the OECD. Britain’s rate is 24.5%,” the UK’s Guardian reports.
“It is not a question of whether we should follow the Danes’ lead – we have to. If we don’t do anything about it, by 2050, 70% of the British population will be obese or overweight and that would result not only in the downfall of the NHS but also of our national workforce,” Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said. Obesity already costs the UK economy about £21.5 billion ($34.5 billion) a year, according to a recent report.
UK Prime Minister, conservative David Cameron, has said that the government will consider implementing such a tax. “[F]rankly, do we have a problem with the growing level of obesity? Yes. Do we have a kind of warning in terms of – look at America, how bad things have got there – what happens if we don’t do anything? Yes, that should be a wake-up call.”
Possible Problems with the Fat Tax
Of course, some assert that the tax won’t work, that people will eat the same amount of butter, lard, meat, and chips that they would eat anyway. And, so, that it’s just a raising of prices. However, I think the fact that the revenue will go into obesity programs, alone, means it will be useful in reducing or limiting obesity, which is it’s main goal.
Some are concerned that it will affect domestic food producers more, since they have to count the saturated fat they use in making their products and distributors only count what’s in the final product. That seems like an odd difference, and unfair if true.
Organic dairy producers and advocates are concerned the organic industry will be more hurt as it will be less able to absorb the price increases (due to smaller profit margins) than industrial producers, meaning the relative cost of organic products will be even higher than it already was.
There’s also the argument that reducing saturated fat consumption won’t make much of a difference. “They based their decision on a report written in 2001,” Dr. Arne Astrup, professor of human nutrition at the University of Copenhagen, says. “In 2001 all the available evidence suggested that we could achieve significant benefits by cutting saturated fats. But it turns out that a lot of that benefit came from cutting transfats, not saturated ones.” (Something, as already mentioned, Denmark already did.)
U.S. Food Policy
As already stated, such a tax in the U.S. would be essentially impossible at the moment. Just look at the huge controversy over the “Happy Meal Toy Ban” in progressive San Francisco. And take a look at our federal food policies, which encourage eating junk food, exactly opposite what our federal dietary guidelines recommend:
The U.S., clearly has a problem. But we’ve also got considerable democratic and political problems that make addressing our obesity epidemic in a systematic way a little unlikely.
And so, we go back to David Cameron’s comment: “look at America, how bad things have got there…. Yes, that should be a wake-up call.” Seems the rest of the world is using it as one.
Fat Guy Photo via Mr TGT