Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fat tax: outrageous infringement of our right to eat, or a tool to tackle an obesity crisis

Ah the fat tax. We're all doomed. My weekend packet of McDonnell's crisps could be 20 cent more. My couple-of-times-a-year fish and chips might set me back an extra two euro. But more importantly, what about the massive amount of cheese and whole milk I consume? The pizzas I make myself, the bakewell tarts with local eggs and apples. The chocolate, em, lots of it.

This is the problem; a fat tax doesn't just tax junk food, it potentially taxes all foods that contain saturated fats. In my own humble opinion I think my diet is pretty wholesome and fairly healthy. But is that healthy diet going to yet another part of my life that seems to cost more money daily? Or is a fat tax worth levelling at all of us, and at many types of food in order to tackle what is a clearly out of control obesity problem.

Earlier this month Denmark was the first of our neighbouring states to introduce a fat tax - making goods like butter, pizza, crisps, oil and processed foods more expensive for the consumer. Anything with more than 2.3% of saturated fat gets taxed. The idea is that if something is more expensive, we eat less of it. To be fair, this has worked in the past; alongside huge negative health messages about cigarettes, making them very expensive has not just been a huge cash earner for the Government but a deterrent to their use. Look at it this way, if a packet of fags costed two euro many people would smoke a hell of a lot more than if (as now) they cost close to a tenner.
Some onlookers say the Danish tax won't work; making foods more expensive won't change behaviour as sweet foods, chocolate or the odd MacDonald's is a treat and people will still consume them whatever the small price rise. The real sufferers of obesity in Ireland tend to lie in lower income groups, so is penalising them fair, or will it force them to change their food habits?

All we can do is watch and see how the Danish fat tax works on people's eating behaviour. It seems that the obesity task force in Ireland is looking firstly at taxing sugary drinks - a fat tax is not yet on the table. Below is a piece I wrote this week for the Irish Times outlining the Dane's plans. Read and weep, rejoice or whatever you feel, I'd love to hear your comments x

The Irish Times Tuesday, October 18th

Suzanne Campbell

Methods of taxing the rising tide of obesity are being debated around Europe following the initiative of Hungary who began penalising high calorie food and drinks on September 1st, with Denmark introducing a “fat tax” earlier this month.
The Danish tax operates as a surcharge on foods such as butter, oil and pizza which contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. For consumers, these foods now carry a levy, calculated at €2.15 per kilogram of saturated fat, meaning that the cost of a pound of butter has increased by about 20 cent.
With an obesity rate of 9 per cent, Denmark is far below the European average of 15 per cent, while 23 per cent of Irish people are considered to be obese. Denmark and Finland have already levied taxes on sugary drinks, while Hungary brought in a wide ranging “fat tax” on foods, soft drinks and alcohol in a bid to tackle its 18.8 per cent obesity rate.
British prime minister David Cameron suggested earlier this month that the UK could follow Denmark’s lead, and from January 1st France is to introduce a tax on sugary drinks which will add 2 cent to every 33cl can.

While taxing sugar-sweetened drinks is being discussed by the Special Action Group on Obesity in this country, Minister for Health James Reilly says there are no plans for a “fat tax” on high fat, salt and sugary foods “at this juncture”. But, in response to a recent parliamentary question, Reilly said that he plans to ask the country’s fast-food operators to include calorie details on their menus.

For many Irish food manufacturers, a “fat tax” is an unwelcome vista. “Under the Danish measures, Irish cheese and milk would be taxed as they contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fats,” says Catherine Logan, nutrition manager at the National Dairy Council.
“But we have to remember that people eat whole foods rather than just single nutrients.”
Could there be a workable solution that doesn’t penalise nutritionally valuable foods such as dairy produce? “There are alternative ways of taxing and with something like cheese you could come to an agreement where it is defined differently,” says Dr Martin Carraher, professor of food and health policy at City University, London.

His suggested measure for Ireland is to tax “processing” and, in doing so, favour foods that are produced locally. “You can do this as long as you don’t provide a barrier to trade.”
His suggestions would be welcomed by many Irish food producers, but without a change of direction from the Minister for Health, the prospect of an Irish “fat tax” in the near future is still an unlikely one.


  1. Oh God. I can see it now. An underground cave near Sheridans where we can buy raw milk, whole cheese and country butter.....the fat black market. I agree that it worked -- on both ends -- for the cigarettes and think that coupled with the ban on smoking inside has enforced a large number of people to quit smoking.

    I suppose one could hope that if this 'fat tax' is launched that the 'real food' will be spared and the processed foods and high calorie soda drinks will be the target.

    I know there are a lot of people steering clear (already) of processed foods. We have a rule here if it has more than five ingredients OR if you cannot pronounce / recognise the ingredient it stays on the shelf. Works wonders with the little ones :0)

    In case no one ever says this 'thanks' for sharing your Times articles. I try very hard to read everything in the newspaper and online but clearly time is not on my side.

  2. Thanks! Yes I think a fat tax is not coming to the table (see what I did there?) just yet but down the road I can see it being a measure that could come into place here. What we need is a separation of "good" foodstuffs with high fat levels and hopefully avoid them being lumped in with the rubbish. Watch this space!

  3. The problem of course is that the governments don't understand the importance of fat in our diet, as they have been fed a diet of junk food science. The fat tax will never help *cure* obesity, it could in actuality make it worse, as more people fall prey to the idea that low fat is the way to go.

    "UK sat fat intake was 52g per person per day in 1975 & 28g in 1999 during which time obesity increased 10x Don't think fat is making us fat" -

  4. Hi Tech, yes fat is seen as a universally bad thing but that's not the case - it's essential to how we function. Saturated fats - fats that are solid at room temperature aren't hugely desireable though, and limiting them has found to decrease onset of cardiovascular disease etc. However, putting cheese, butter etc into the same category as highly processed foor is a mistake, I don't think Irish farmhouse cheeses are making people obese are they? What Denmark is doing doesn't have to be slavishly followed, at least I hope it won't be the case here.

  5. I would have to disagree regarding saturated fats- coconut oil for instance is of huge dietary value and is solid at room temperature.Might I suggest a little light reading around this?