20 percent 'fat tax' needed to improve population health: experts

Taxes on unhealthy food and drinks would need to be at least 20% to have a significant effect on diet-related conditions such as obesity and heart disease, say experts in the British Medical Journal today. Ideally, this should be combined with subsidies on healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, they add.

Their views come ahead of the 65th taking place in Geneva on 21-26 May 2012 where prevention and control of non-communicable diseases will be a key issue for discussion.

As an increasing number of countries introduce taxes on and drinks, Oliver Mytton and colleagues at the University of Oxford examine the evidence on the of food taxes.

Evidence suggests that taxing a wide range of unhealthy foods or nutrients is likely to result in greater than narrow taxes, they say, although the strongest evidence base is for tax on sugary drinks.

For example, a US study found a 35% tax on sugar sweetened drinks ($0.45 (£0.28; €0.34) per drink) in a canteen led to a 26% decline in sales.

Meanwhile modelling studies predict a 20% tax on sugary drinks in the US would reduce obesity levels by 3.5%, and suggest that extending VAT (at 17.5%) to unhealthy foods in the UK could cut up to 2,700 deaths a year.

Opinion polls from the US also put support for tax on at between 37% and 72%, particularly when the health benefits of the tax are emphasised.

However, they point out that understanding the overall effect on health is complicated, and that policy makers need to be wary of negative effects, like changes in other important nutrients and compensatory behaviour that may increase energy intake or reduce energy expenditure.

The food industry also argues that the taxes would be ineffective, unfair, and damage the industry leading to job losses. And from a legislative point of view, it is still unclear how such taxes are best introduced and enforced.

Meanwhile, others have advocated that the taxes be used to raise funds to treat diet related diseases, subsidise healthy foods, or to stimulate industry reformulation of food (such as removal of salt, sugar, or saturated fats from foods).

In conclusion, Mytton and colleagues say that health related food taxes have the potential to improve health, but the tax would need to be at least 20% to have a significant effect on population health.

In a second analysis paper, Corinna Hawkes from the Centre for Food Policy at City University London says that, although governments are beginning to implement food policies to encourage healthier eating, "there remains a long way to go for food policies to reach their full potential."

She points out that changes to the food supply system since the 1980s have "coincided with rises in obesity and non-communicable diseases" and argues that health must be made a priority for the modern food economy.

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Journal information: British Medical Journal (BMJ)

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May 15, 2012
Halting subsidies to dead weight and undesirable industries, like those that employ factory farming, may help as well. Reducing our dietary dependence on meat would go a long way to solving many of our social and economic ills.

May 16, 2012
I agree with JRDarby. Federal subsidies for animal agriculture are currently excessive. It should cost 5 to 10 times more to purchase all farm raised meat (excluding lamb which is more accurately priced) than it does which leads to monumental amounts of waste. We have seen evidence in the US that when people don't have to conserve, they won't because it doesn't personally affect them. Consuming the volume of animal products that the US does also hurts the environment because of agricultural waste and runoff. Of course, everyone is already aware of the amount of methane produced by farm animals as well.

May 18, 2012
I think we need to have a surcharge for anyone who votes for a progressives. That way they suffer for their stupidity.

According to progressive thinking I must be super human. I am at normal weight, above normal fitness levels. Yet I live by a McDonalds, a KFC, Jack in the Box, I eat fries and ice cream and hamburgers. However I take responsiblity for my health and eat "junk" food in moderation.

May 20, 2012
I find it interesting to not that most of the zealots advocating taxing "fat" foods can afford to purchase healthier foods. Most healthier foods are higher priced then starches and sugars. So who does this new TAX really effect and who does is benefit? The negative effect is to the poor and elderly who find the "fat" foods affordable. The beneficial effect would be primarily to the younger population, who will pay the added price anyhow. Since that's a wash, the only other benefit is the added tax base. So just who's pushing this junk science? One wonders if it isn't the current administration. They seem to be great at taking money from the poor, the seniors and the handicapped. Like reevaluating autistic children to reduce SSI costs. Like changing inflation factors so that there are lower cost of living raises for social security. Makes me curious as to who funds these so called experts!

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