Considering an unhealthy-food tax

by Jennifer Bowden / 26 October, 2013
What a couple of experts think of the proposals to counter obesity.
Too much time and attention has been directed at treating obesity as an individual lifestyle choice requiring medical intervention, says Professor Paul McDonald, pro-vice chancellor of Massey University’s College of Health.

"Tobacco and obesity aren’t medical problems with social implications. Rather, they’re social challenges with medical implications.

Professor Paul McDonald.

“Tobacco use plummeted once we understood that our health, smoking status, nutritional levels and weight are largely a function of our family, friends, workplace, industry and the actions and beliefs of people we’ve never met. What we do affects others and vice versa. This is also true of food companies.”

In their book Appetite for Destruction: Food – The Good the Bad and the Fatal, Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons use tobacco control as an example of how taxation is successfully helping to resolve a major health issue. So what does McDonald, a public health specialist who was involved in Canada’s tobacco-control interventions, think about taxation for reducing obesity?

“Taxation was essential for reducing tobacco use. Taxing unhealthy foods has produced somewhat mixed results. In general, consumption goes down as the price goes up. However, this is less effective with some groups. Unlike tobacco, we all need to eat to live. It’s also more difficult to categorise food as healthy or unhealthy.”

Associate Professor Nick Wilson, who with colleagues from the University of Otago’s Department of Public Health recently published two scientific papers on food taxes and subsidies, has a more positive view. “There’s certainly merit in considering an unhealthy-food tax to help protect the health of New Zealanders and to reduce costs to the health system.” As Wilson points out, tax is the single most important way our society reduces harm from smoking and alcohol misuse. “It makes more sense to tax harmful products and pollution more, and then have income-tax reductions – that is, less tax on hard work.”

European countries are increasingly using unhealthy-food taxes and there are some signs that they work, says Wilson. “The saturated-fat tax in Denmark reduced sales of various fats by 15% before it was prematurely discontinued for political reasons.”

Associate Professor Nick Wilson.

Still, as McDonald points out, many foods are unhealthy because they provide lots of calories at a low price. And if you don’t have much money, you need cheap high-calorie foods that taste good and that you have the ability, time and equipment to prepare. In their book, Morgan and Simmons suggest a universal 20% tax on all unhealthy foods. “A universal tax could reduce consumption of high-fat, high-sugar foods, but in the absence of other measures, it could also discriminate against certain vulnerable groups,” says McDonald. Complementary strategies would be needed to make healthier, personally acceptable food choices more affordable and available.

Wilson says “[food] taxes need to be carefully designed and evaluated to ensure there’s no shifting of consumption from a taxed food that, for example, is high in salt to an untaxed food that’s high in sugar … starting with a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would be low risk and a good initial step towards preventing obesity in children. If this worked well, then a more general unhealthy-food tax could be tried.”

Both Wilson and McDonald agree taxation alone isn’t a complete solution. “While unhealthy-food taxes will probably work by themselves, they’re likely to work better if there’s much clearer and useful food labelling, as Morgan and Simmons argue for in their book,” says Wilson. Regulation of the food industry is also a reasonable suggestion, he says. “This could start with setting upper limits for sugar foods such as breakfast cereals.”

To discover how the food manufacturers have fooled us, read this week's Listener feature by Gareth Morgan: The fake food fiascoSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
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