At the beginning of this year, Denmark’s government was all for it. Heck, it had already introduced a tax on saturated fat in products. But within 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 fat tax, and 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 is 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 are a regular marathon runner, the odd chocolate bar is not going to make much impact, but if you lounge around on the couch watching television all day, it is different story.
As Jack Winkler, professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, comments, ‘we have been trying to change people for 30 years and it’s just failed’.
Reducing the price of healthy food
‘Maybe reducing the price of healthy food would work better?’ asks nutritionist Gayor Bussel. In an earlier media report 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, comments Bussel, will only work if healthy products were also subsidised, 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 will 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 eat more of them than standard bars because they think they are healthier, that will just make things worse.
What about zero calorie/fat foods? Surely you cannot argue with them? There is an argument for that in snacks. But, if main meals contain zero calories, we would pretty soon be flagging. People need a minimum amount of daily calories to function and many fats are also good for us. But how can 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. Consumer groups and government, too, might 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 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 is a role for an independent body, backed by government, to do this work?