Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is there still life in fat taxes?

Bruce Traill, the president of the Agricultural Economics Society, writes in their latest newsletter: 'Denmark is abandoning its short-lived experiment with the world’s first fat tax just as the use of fiscal measures to improve diets and offset the social costs of unhealthy eating appeared to be gathering momentum; the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the National Heart Forum and the European Heart Network, have called for the use of various forms of food taxes and subsidies in the past year. Even David Cameron floated the idea in 2011.'

'The Danes taxed products with more than 2.3% saturated fat content at 16 KR (c£1.75) per kg of saturated fat (13% of current retail full-fat butter prices). This was deemed sufficient to have driven hordes of Danes into the welcoming arms of German and Swedish retailers, "exporting" 1300 jobs (according to the Danish Food Workers Union). It’s a pity there wasn’t time to evaluate the impact of the measures on consumption (Copenhagen University’s finding of a 20% fall in purchases of fats and cooking oil in the 3 months from introducing the tax were skewed by hoarding in the run up to the tax and cross-border shopping).'

'Small taxes (and subsidies) on foods or nutrients are never likely to have a big impact on consumption and health, but they do raise a lot of money and are cost effective according to OECD; the Danish tax raised about £150m in a year, the French soda tax a similar amount. Fiscal measures also give incentives to producers to reformulate their products. The EU EATWELL research project recommends ring-fencing revenue generated by a tax for use in other cost-effective healthy eating programmes.' [Although one might add that politicians are never keen on hypothecating revenues because it restricts their freedom of manoeuvre.]

'The US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme and Women, Infants, Children schemes, targeted at subsidising healthy foods for poor consumers, would be good candidates. They have been shown to be highly cost-effective and would be good models for wider adoption in Europe. As they specifically target disadvantaged groups, they partially address a criticism that fiscal food measures are regressive. And if the taxes were applied Europe-wide, the Danes would have to travel a long way to find cheap butter.'

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