A public health perspective on food taxes

Published on Monday, 19 November 2012 11:22
Written by Jane Landon

There is nothing new about taxing foods. Some 'luxury' foods such as ice cream and confectionery are subject to VAT as well as food in cafés and restaurants

Historically, governments have taxed products whose price does not reflect their true cost to society. For example, tobacco and alcohol are taxed as products which are known to cause health and social harms. The effect of these taxes is to increase prices, reduce consumption and raise revenues which can be used to offset costs incurred treating smoking- and drinking-related diseases and as a consequence of alcohol-related crime and disorder. Recognised as cost-effective as well as justified, these policies are included in the WHO analysis of 'best buys' to tackle non-communicable diseases.[i]

In the UK, over 60% of adults are overweight or obese and 20% of those adults are obese. This is contributing to a growing social and economic burden of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer and type II diabetes. We need policies to help mend a failing food system which currently makes highly processed foods laden with fat, sugar and salt cheaper, more accessible and more heavily promoted than healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. There is mounting support internationally among health experts, public interest organisations and policy makers for trialling well-designed food taxes as part of a 'basket of measures' to tackle the current crisis of diet-related diseases. In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food described today's food systems as 'deeply dysfunctional', and recommended that countries include in their priority actions, 'taxes on soft drinks and on HFSS (high fat, sugars and salt) foods, in order to subsidize access to fruits and vegetables and educational campaigns on healthy diets.'[ii]

Last week we, the National Heart Forum, called on the UK Government to consider a new duty on sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Our analysis suggests this would be a good place to start because sugary soft drinks are of minimal nutritional value, contribute excess calories and can be easily substituted for a healthy alternative. An excise duty on a specific category of food (such as sugary soft drinks), rather than a nutrient (such as sugar or saturated fat) is likely to be more straightforward to apply and less likely to have unintended substitution effects. Preliminary analysis of the French 'soda' tax (introduced in January 2012) suggests that in the first five months after a duty of €7.16 per hectolitre was levied, prices rose by 5% and sales fell by 3.3%.[iii]

The discourse in the media is dominated by the food industry which lobbies tirelessly to roll back food taxes wherever they are introduced. The Danish saturated fat tax is the latest casualty. According to the European Public Health Alliance, 'Copenhagen claims that the fat tax hurt the food industry's balance sheet or that this levy enhanced cross-border trade - and yet the data to support these arguments has yet to materialise. Arguments that, beyond anecdotal evidence, do not bear much credibility and could well be linked to broader economic trends or tactical responses on behalf of the industry.'  It is important that those speaking on behalf of public health are heard and that the evidence and arguments for proportionate health-related tax policies are put before the public and policy makers by those whose interest is promoting health, not selling sugary drinks or fatty foods

[i] World Health Organization. 2010. Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases. Geneva: WHO

[ii] United Nations. 2011. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter. December 2011. A/HRC/19/59

[iii] Le marché de soft-drinks a la gueule de bois. (The soft drinks industry has a hangover). Le Figaro: 26 July 2012.


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