Should there be a tax on junk food to discourage consumers? Several countries have tried it, and the results are revealing.
In Switzerland, 41% of the population is overweight and 10% is obese. But the situation is even worse in other countries. Nearly 70% of the US population is overweight, with one third considered obese. Faced with this epidemic, which greatly increases the incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and even long-forgotten disorders like gout, several countries have decided to impose a tax on sugary or fatty foods.
But how effective are such measures? A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that a 10% tax on sodas would decrease the number of calories consumed from drinking soda by 7%. An 18% tax on unhealthy foods would lead to weight loss of just two kilos per year for overweight 18- to 30-year-olds.
“If we want to change consumer behavior, the tax has to be high enough,” says Oliver Mytton, a researcher at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research at Cambridge University, who analyzed 30 international studies on this type of tax. “Otherwise, people don’t even notice it, or the store absorbs the cost.” For it to actually make a dent in people’s wallets, Mytton says the tax has to be at least 20%. He also recommends applying it to sugary drinks first. “We don’t need them in our diet, since they’re just ‘empty’ calories and they don’t quench our thirst,” he said. “It makes perfect sense to target them.”
The rare instances in which such taxes were implemented have taught us much. The Danish government introduced a tax on trans fats in October 2011, which it later revoked in early 2013. “During that time, we saw a 10% to 15% decrease in the number of fats and oils consumed,” says Sinne Smed, a researcher in the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics. “The initial results of a new study show that the consumption of saturated fat decreased by 6%. It would seem that people gave up butter and margarine most readily.” More anecdotal but nonetheless telling: when Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston increased the price of sodas by 35%, soda consumption decreased by 26%.
However, taxing food can produce undesirable effects. “If we target foods like oil and butter, which everyone uses, we may end up driving people towards substitute products that are equally unhealthy,” says Mytton. “People tend to replace fatty foods with salty ones.” There is also the risk of stigmatizing fatty foods that are healthy, like avocados and nuts. On the other hand, there are very few unhealthy substitutes for sugary drinks. “People will drink water or fruit juice instead,” says Mytton.
According to Smed, “Some people may even eat fewer fruits and vegetables so they can afford the unhealthy food – giving up carrots so they can treat themselves to a bag of chips.” In 2012, 48% of Danes crossed into Germany or Sweden to do their grocery shopping.
The tax on fat and sugar is regressive, which means it hits the poor even harder. “Low-income families tend to live in ‘food deserts’ where you only find fatty foods and ready-made meals,” says Roberta Friedman, Director of Public Policy at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. Jim O’Hara, who works at the NGO Center for Science in the Public Interest and was one of the first people to promote taxing foods, argued that “disadvantaged groups suffer the most from obesity and diabetes and would therefore benefit the most from any improvements brought about by such taxes.”
Taxes on unhealthy foods will also have to make it past the blockade put up by the food industry. “It already managed to kill a tax on sugary drinks in New York in 2010,” says O’Hara. The American Beverage Association spent $9.4 million on that campaign. Its competition, the organizations in favor of the tax, had to make do with only $2.5 million to $5 million.
Sinne Smed observed the same phenomenon in Denmark. “Before the tax was introduced, most of the population was in favor of it. But then the food industry spent months arguing that it was weighing on salaries, destroying jobs and adding to the administrative burden on farmers and small producers. As a result, public opinion flipped.” By April 2012, 75% of Danes were against the tax.
While a “fat tax” may not be a cure-all for obesity, it is at least an important piece of the puzzle. “The tax could generate revenue that would then be used to finance preventive measures, such as serving healthy meals at schools and promoting exercise,” says Friedman. Smed added, “We could use the money to subsidize fruits and vegetables, which would decrease their prices over time as those of fatty foods increase.” In Denmark, the tax on trans fats generated $216 million.
In October 2011, the Danish government imposed a tax on foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, increasing their prices by around 10%. Following pressure from the food industry and unions, the tax was abolished at the end of 2012, and a tax on sugar planned for 2013 was shelved.
Nearly two thirds of states (35 in 2011) have a tax on sugary drinks, but it rarely goes above 4%. New York restaurants were prohibited from cooking with trans fats in 2006. However, a New York City law limiting the size of sodas to 16 ounces (a half liter) was dropped at the last minute.
The Mexican parliament just passed an 8% tax on foods with over 275 calories per 100 grams, as well as a tax of 1 peso per liter on sodas. Mexico is the top consumer of carbonated drinks in the world, with 163 liters consumed per person per year.
François Pralong, Head of the Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism Unit at the Lausanne University Hospital
For François Pralong, promoting physical activity and improving food education are key to fighting obesity.
IV What treatment do you prescribe for obese patients?
FP The treatment has three parts. First is their diet. We teach them to identify hidden fats and sugars, better judge how much they’re eating and understand the value of different nutrients. The second part is psychological. We work on their food-related behavior, which led to the weight gain in the first place. And the last part is exercise. We encourage them to be more physically active.
IV What if that’s not enough?
FP About half the people who visit us will end up having gastric bypass surgery. Since it’s an irreversible operation, we make sure the person is thoroughly prepared for it, that their weight is stable and that they understand that they will require follow-up for the rest of their life.
IV Are there any preemptive measures people can take?
FP We recently created a seminar for overweight patients that aims to reach people before they become morbidly obese. Our goal is to help them understand the link between their weight gain and what they’re eating or how much they’re exercising. Some people are completely unaware of it and some are in denial.