‘Fat tax’ is a neat thought, but like all simplistic ideas it falls down at the execution, as the progress of the policy in Denmark shows – it simply doesn’t work in practice.
At the start of this year, the country’s government was all for it. Heck, it had already introduced a tax on saturated fat in products. But within the space of a few months, the situation has completely turned around and it looks like the idea is dead in the water.
Proposals to scrap the existing sat fat tax and end aims to introduce a similar tax on sugary food and drink are now written into Denmark’s draft budget. Consensus of opinion is that the government will ratify them.
The idea has failed not because of its lack of effectiveness to stop unhealthy eating, although there is wider evidence suggesting problems there, of which more later, but because of the economics.
Trade unions have waded into the debate, claiming manufacturers and retailers are losing sales through the existing fat tax because consumers are crossing borders to buy ‘bad’ food. This will result in thousands of lost jobs, they claim. It’s another indicator that people will find some way to eat fatty, sugary food even if huge premiums are slapped on them.
Aside from anything else, this lends weight to the mantra the food industry has repeated with tired regulatory for years: healthy eating is as much about people’s personal choice as the products themselves. If you’re a regular marathon runner, the odd Mars bar isn’t going to make much impact, but if you’re lounging around on the sofa watching TV all day, it’s a different story.
As Jack Winkler, professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University told us in a phone conversation earlier today: “We have been trying to change people for 30 years and it’s just failed.”
Reducing the price of healthy food
And as nutritionist Gaynor Bussell said in an earlier interview this week: “Maybe reducing the price of healthy food would work better?” In an earlier FoodNavigator article this year, Monika Kosinska, secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, speaking at a nutrition and lifestyle conference, expressed the same view.
Taxation of less healthy products, she said, would only work if healthy products were also subsidized, providing both stick and carrot. Unfortunately this instantly makes the concept less attractive for governments seeking to fill their coffers rather than empty them.
What about unhealthy products altogether? Maybe that would curb rising global obesity levels. Just one problem: define unhealthy. A low fat/sugar bar still has some sugar and fat in it and if people ate more of them than standard bars because they thought they were healthier, that would just make things worse.
What about zero calorie/fat foods? Surely you couldn’t argue with them? There’s an argument for that in snacks. But if main meals contained zero calories, we’d pretty soon be flagging. People need a minimum amount of daily calories to function and many fats are also good for us. But how would you stop consumers from eating three times what they should during these meals? Or eating them just before they went to bed, when they have no time to burn calories off?
The lesson here is that all aspects of society have a role to play. Manufacturers are responsible, because lazy processing techniques have leaned far too heavily on salt, fat and sugar as easy ways to add flavour in the past. You only have to glance at a few FoodNavigator newsletters to see that manufacturers are constantly innovating to deliver healthier ingredients to reformulate foods and get around this problem.
Consumer groups and government should rightly play a role in prompting industry to keep up the good work, otherwise complacency ensues. And controls on advertising to children do rightly need to be tight – few can compete with the big budgets of multinational food brands.
Education too has a role to play in showing people how they can eat healthily for less money than many believe.
All of this needs coordination, so perhaps there’s a role for an independent body, backed by government, to do this work ... Could the likes of the UK’s Food Standards Agency have more of a role than previously thought?