A new study on the public health impact of fat tax and subsidies for healthy options concludes they should be included as a suite of policy measures to encourage healthy eating – even though they may have a negligible effect on disease risk.
So-called ‘fat tax’ on food products that are high in saturated fat and sugar has been proposed in a number of countries; most recently Denmark introduced a controversial saturated fat-linked tax at the start of 2011. The government-funded Forebyggelses Kommisionen (Prevention Commission) says that if the variable tax is levied for 10 years it will increase average life expectancy amongst the Danish population by 5.5 days.
The idea has also been raised several times in the UK, and debate over a proposed tax on sugary soft drinks has been fierce in the United States, with health care reformers seeing as a way to increase funds on the one hand, and advocates of consumer choice regarding it as a curb on individual freedom on the other.
At the same time, there the cost of healthier food options has raised concerns in some quarters, as nutritious products tend to carry a higher price tag.
The new study, conducted by researchers at the Universities of Reading and Edinburgh and published in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, set out to measure the impacts of taxes and subsidies on the risks of diet-related disease, accounting for a full range of diets.
Authors Richard Tiffin and Mattieu Arnoult used data collected from 6760 households in the UK Expenditure and Food Survey to simulate the impacts of a policy where a tax based on saturated fat content where combined with a subsidy on fruit and vegetables.
The tax and subsidy rates used in the simulation were determined by category. The ranged from a tax of 15 per cent on cream, cheese and fat and 13.77 per cent on crisps, down to a subsidy of 14.78 per cent on frozen, fresh, tinned and prepared fruits and vegetables.
Consumption change projections at the level of individual households were then used to work out the effects on risks of a range of diet related disease using measures of relative risk.
Five a day
The researchers found that the fat tax and subsidy policy would be effective at moving diets “in a direction consistent with improvements in diet-related health” – but mainly because the subsidised fruit and veg helped people achieve five-a-day targets.
The tax on saturated fat, on the other hand, was not seen to move fat intakes towards recommended amounts.
What is more, although mean levels may move favourably towards guidelines, a large proportion of the population would continue with their poor dietary habits. This means that individual benefits notwithstanding, on a population level the average level of disease risk would not change significantly.
Tiffin and Arnoult concluded that a fat tax should be seen as “a component in a suite of instruments in tackling poor diets”. They noted that measures at a combination of different social levels – community, school, family, individual – are increasingly advocated.
Comparing the tackling poor diets with smoking, they said that habits were changed not just as a result of price increases for cigarettes, but media attention also had a lot to do with it.
Thus, they said “complex policies” at different levels of society are likely to be more effective in addressing severe chronic dietary disease that affects some groups.
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2011), 1–7
“The public health impacts of a fat tax”
Authors: R Tiffin1 and M Arnoult2