The Vote – Is it Time to Tax Unhealthy Food?

By Michael Edmonds 29/03/2013

This morning I been watching a rerun of “The Vote – Is it Time to Tax Unhealthy Food?”

This show debates an issue, in this case whether it is is time to tax unhealthy food, by having two opposing teams debate the issues. It is an interesting programme but I must say I am a little bit disappointed that the debate focuses largely on rhetoric, with little science and in some cases, inclusion of “facts” that I think were more likely fiction.

For such an important debate, I am disappointed.

At the end of the debate different audiences were polled on their views

The audience started off with 44% in favour of a tax, 44% against and 12% undecided. It ended with 41% in favour, 57% opposed and 1% undecided.

In other fora, there was a slight preference for a tax. On Facebook 55% for a tax, 45% against. On twitter 51% for, 49% against. By text, 52% for a tax, 48% against.

Overall, it came out as 54% of those voting in all fora were for a tax on unhealthy food. An interesting result.

At the moment, my view is that a tax on some high energy, low nutrient, foods would be a good thing. But it would have to be introduced in a simple, transparent manner and with the monies raised going towards improving healthy eating. But I’d be interested in other people’s (reasoned) views. Not that keen on rhetoric and unsubstantiated “facts” though.

0 Responses to “The Vote – Is it Time to Tax Unhealthy Food?”

  • Good analysis of this programme, Michael. It made me very angry – in the end I concluded that no matter the outcome, science lost to the market. The debate was very aggressive, on both sides,
    and I thought (though I know I am biased), very anti science. The evidence counted for nothing when people’s choice was threatened. Milk is more expensive than fizzy, but how much will Type II diabetes treatment cost the country?

    • Yes, it was quite a disturbing debate. I think even the pro-tax team made a few errors, including suggesting that education is useless (it would have been far more effective to say that education had some value, but this worked better along side taxes.

  • I’m a bit worried about all this focus on taxing things we don’t like. It seems a bit like a scene from Monty Python where villagers all want to burn a witch.

    Taxes on tobacco and alcohol aren’t making a lot of difference. Spending on food, in general, isn’t a very high proportion of our disposable income. Think about it: a 10% increase in the amount you pay on your mortgage will cost you a lot more than doubling of the cost of a cheeseburger. Then we (or a small army of public servants) have to define what “unhealthy” food is.

    I think we need to do more thinking about “what is the best way to reduce people’s intake of foods that will tend to make them unhealthy”, rather than leaping to a conclusion that one particular approach should be tried, as if the only choices are a tax or no tax. Especially when Denmark gave up its tax on saturated foods after only one year.

  • At first reasoning I thought a junk food tax seemed like a great idea. A couple of years ago though, I read a study (sorry, wish I could find it now!) that found counterintuitively, that people actually consumed *more* junk food in trials where this type of tax was implemented. I think the reason was something like that feeling more virtuous by buying more “healthy food” in the lower tax bracket due to the discrepancy between the price brackets, people felt that they were more entitled to more “treat foods”…

    • Andrea, that is a good point – how has this worked (or not worked) overseas? What does the evidence show?

      Possum, you make some good points, though I would disagree that it would be hard to define what “unhealthy” food. When this argument comes from politicians I tihnk it is just obfuscation.
      The purpose of the tax is one to think about. Is it to discourage eating unhealthily? Or is it to fund making healthy food cheaper and more accessible? Will either of these work?
      I’d also like to know why one of the teams dismissed education? Isn’t education helping reduce the number of those using tobacco?

      I think my biggest problem with the debate is that there was little evidence, and a lot of rhetoric, much of it biased/cherrypicked by the speakers background.

      Possum, you have me less convinced over the benefits of a tax now 🙂

      The other point to draw from this debate, is how should a scientist respond to such a debate (i.e. if they were invited to take part)? If rhetoric seems to be more common (and more persuasive), how should we deal with this?

  • I suspect there is scope for more use of education – the government is spending a lot on the energy saving ads for example I think it was a shame the govt stopped the healthy eating programme in schools, as it was a way of advising people just which food are healthier.

    There is some good data on the Bandolier website: