Fat tax could improve health: study

Taxing fizzy drinks and fatty foods and subsidising fruit and vegetables could have significant health benefits, a new study has shown.

Researchers from the Universities of Otago and Auckland examined the relationship between food pricing, consumption and non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes in their study, published in PLOS magazine.

The study, which analysed data from 32 high-income countries, predicted that for every 1 per cent price increase, there would be an overall decrease of 0.02 per cent in energy intake from saturated fat.

Similarly, a 10 per cent hike in the price of soft drinks could decrease consumption by up to 24 per cent, the research found.

Dropping the price of fruit and vegetables would work the other way with a 10 per cent decrease potentially increasing consumption by up to 8 per cent.

However, researchers did find that subsidies like this could work adversely with people making compensatory purchases - buying less of other healthy products like fish and buying unhealthy supplements like sugar.

The researchers also found that food pricing strategies would be more effective in improving the health of lower socio-economic groups, suggesting potential for a reduction in inequalities.

"Based on modelling studies, taxes on carbonated drinks and saturated fat and subsidies on fruits and vegetables are associated with beneficial dietary change, with the potential for improved health, "the authors said.

"Given the limitations of the current evidence, robust evaluations must be planned when food pricing policies are implemented by governments."

But additional research into the long-term health incomes for different socio-economic groups was still needed, they said.

Professor Elaine Rush of Auckland University of Technology's Faculty of Health and Environmental Science agreed more research was needed but challenged food producers, manufacturers and retailers to "improve the availability, cost, and formulation of foods and use their considerable marketing skills to drive a change to the food supply now".

"There is no shortage of nutritious food but it does not get to the mouths of those most in need," she said.

"We know eating whole fruit and vegetables, protein, dairy products and whole grains improves health and productivity and the earlier in life the bigger the potential improvement."

Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University's Population Nutrition and Global Health department argued that diet was highly dependent on the price of food.

"The contribution of unhealthy diets to ill health in New Zealand is now greater than that of tobacco, so improving diets needs to be taken far more seriously than it is at present," he said.

Professor Swinburn said the "two most promising strategies" for New Zealand would be to follow Australia's lead in removing the GST on fruit and vegetables and to introduce an excise tax for drinks high in sugar.

Other experts expressed concerns about how realistic administering the taxes would be.

"Taxes and subsidies to encourage healthy eating are notoriously difficult to administer in the real world. They're the kind of thing that sounds simple, but wind up being a bit of a compliance nightmare," said economist Dr Eric Crampton of the University of Canterbury.

He pointed out that Denmark recently abandoned its fat tax after just one year after because of the administrative burden it placed on Danish firms.

- Herald Online

Add a Comment