This week it was reported in the media that Denmark has become the first country in the world to introduce a fat tax on food, with a surcharge on foods high in saturated fat of 16 kroner ($NZ3.80) per kg of saturated fats in a product.
According to Radio New Zealand, Health Minister Tony Ryall has ruled out a fat tax for New Zealand, saying that a fat tax would add to the burden on many families in tight economic times.
We are in the grips of an obesity epidemic here in New Zealand, and last month the new National Diet and Nutrition survey showed that the prevalence of obesity among men had jumped from 17 percent in 1997 to 27.7 percent in 2008-2009 and from 20.6 percent in women to 27.8 percent. Among Maori, 40.7 percent of men were obese, and 48.1 percent of women. But is a fat tax really the answer to our burgeoning obesity problem?
The debate about fat tax is not new and this latest move by Denmark has sparked media headlines around the world — with the LA Times suggesting that the ‘food police’ have stormed Denmark and the UK’s Independent newspaper suggesting that consumers are hoarding provisions ahead of the price rise.
Concerns about the introduction of a fat tax have been largely centred on the fact that such a tax may hit low-income families harder as they may be buying a higher proportion of the less healthy foods. It has also been argued that simply changing the pricing of foods won’t change people’s eating habits. In addition, it is difficult to categorize some foods as good or bad — dairy products such as the full fat versions of milk and cheese can be high in fat but a good source of calcium, protein and other important nutrients. Such foods can make an important nutritional contribution to the diets of young children or frail and malnourished older people who may need the extra nutrients provided by such products. If a tax was introduced it would have to be carefully implemented.
Here in New Zealand, the Fight the Obesity Epidemic (FOE) organisation published a report on fat tax, Cutting the Fat: How a fat tax can help fight obesity in August, 2004. In the report they outline the benefits of such a scheme, highlighting four key benefits of introducing a fat tax. Firstly, a fat tax would provide funds for prevention and medical treatment of obesity; secondly, a fat tax may deter the purchase of unhealthy products; thirdly, there would be strong incentives to manufacturers to alter product composition; and finally, a tax would provide revenue that could be used to fund complementary measures (such as a major public awareness campaign) to encourage consumers to have a more balanced diet.
However, FOE also state that ’possible introduction of a fat tax is a potentially controversial topic should not inhibit discussion of this or any other measures that may facilitate the lifestyle changes necessary to stem the tide of the obesity epidemic.’
With obesity rates sky-rocketing in New Zealand, and given that obesity is associated with many diseases and with premature death, all aspects of addressing this problem need to be considered. Price certainly has an influence on food choice, and presenting healthier food options in a way that is more appetizing and appealing, as well as more affordable than the less healthy options, is likely to their encourage selection.