We Need a Fat Tax!

Edit 2013: It is with regret that I now acknowledge a lot of what I thought I knew about optimal eating some years back was wrong. Please disregard this post.

Sometime ago I wrote that introducing a fat tax is a good idea on the grounds that fatty foods are unhealthy and addictive (like drugs), and that a fat tax is socially progressive and would encourage healthier eating lifestyles. This argument is especially persuasive in countries where people who consciously lead unhealthy lifestyles can freeload on universal healthcare systems. Even in the US, these irresponsible characters drive up the costs of private medical insurance for everyone else. Given that Obama is energetically driving our fat asses in this direction, no matter that the nation is going broke, this issue becomes rather pertinent.

My arguments for a fat tax were considered worthy enough to be included in an anthology of essays dealing with this problem of At Issue: How Should Obesity be Treated?, edited by ed. Stefan Kiesbye [Amazon linkie], where the original essay was republished as A Tax on High Fat Foods Might Modify Poor Eating Habits. I re-republish their slightly edited* version below:


A Tax on High Fat Foods Might Modify Poor Eating Habits

Anatoly Karlin

Anatoly Karlin is the author of a blog that concentrates on Russian news topics, as well as one subjects of general interest.

The government should implement a graduated tax system on foods high in fat to counteract the obesity epidemic. Such a program would persuade people to cut back drastically on fat- and sodium-rich foods and encourage them to start eating food that is good for them. The goal is not to increase the life expectancy on the population but to make people live healthier and more productive lives.

We noticed that culinary cultures which consume a low-fat diet have tend to have dramatically lower mortality rates from CVDs [cardiovascular diseases] and degenerative diseases than those who indulge in a high-fat, high-sodium ‘civilized’ diet. As such it is a good idea to encourage consumption to shift from high-fat to low-fat foods.

Taxing Fatty Foods

Research should be conducted so as to ascertain the optimal levels of taxation to maximize positive outcomes, and the tax will probably be introduced gradually. But I’ll give a rough idea of how the tax will work below.

Calculate the caloric fat content of a particular food (take the number of grams of fat per 100g and multiply by 9; divide this by calories per 100g to get %). Anything under 20% will remain untaxed. This includes vegetables, fruits, fish and some white meats (skinless chicken breast). Then a flat tax of 25% for 20-30% fat (this will account for leaner steaks), 100% for 30-50% fat (traditional red meats) and 200% for 50+% fat (fast food hamburgers, vegetable oils, etc).

It goes without saying that advertising unhealthy foods will be a no-no, along with alcoholic drinks and tobacco.

Sodium will be taxed too. The RDA for sodium is 2g, or 4g of salt (max 3g/6g). Say, anything with more than 0.5g of sodium / 100g will be flat taxed at 50%.

A few foods, while OK in fat, are unacceptably high in cholesterol. The big one [is] eggs – one egg yolk = 2 days of RDA of cholesterol. Tax them at 200%. While some seafoods like prawns or oysters are medium-high in cholesterol, they have other health benefits, so leave them untaxed. I will not tax sugar because a) cakes, puddings, etc will already be taxed for their fat content and b) a lot of fruit actually contain a rather high % of sugar, but it is of a healthy kind. Fruit shouldn’t be taxed.

Advertising Restrictions

It is of course vital to propagandize the benefits for personal health of a low-fat diet on prime-time TV, radio, Internet and other media outlets. It goes without saying that advertising unhealthy foods will be a no-no, along with alcoholic drinks and tobacco. On the other hand, people do respond to price signals and meat and sweets costing less than fruit does not make a good contribution to public health. The fact is that countries with some specific diets (e.g. Okinawans have a life expectancy of 85 years) have health results that are objectively better than countries with other diets (e.g. Americans, Danes have a life expectancy of 77-78 years). So surely it would make sense to tax and subsidize in a way that shifts consumption patterns to the ones seen in countries/regions with the better health results?

Radical problems (a million preventable deaths from heart disease per year in the US alone, etc) require radical solutions. The hoi polloi [common people] will be treated to an intense national information campaign informing them of the benefits of the low fat diet.

Seriously though. The elite has a vested interest in improving the health of the workforce. Firstly, there will appear articles in newspapers and programs on TV exploring the links between nutrition and health. Advocacy groups for healthy dieting will appear and momentum for legislative changes will build up. Eventually, the government will bow to the public interest and gradually step up the fat tax.

You can still stuff yourself with butter and high-fat cheese if you really want to, you’ll just have to pay more for it.

Fast Food Industry Must Change

In industrialized countries, agriculture tends to account for a low % of GDP [gross domestic product] (7.9% in Portugal, 4.6% in Russia, 2.0% in France, o.9% in the US), and accounts for a correspondingly low % of those countries’ workforces (10.0% in Portugal, 10.8% in Russia, 4.1% in France, 0.4% in the US). So a dip in these figures will not affect the national economy much. In any case producers can adjust to it if plenty of advance warning is given and changes are introduced gradually.

Same goes for the food industry. The demand for food will remain; they will just have to try to adjust to the new order of things. Maybe it will be too hard for companies like McDonalds or KFC, but who cares about them anyway?

For some products you can pay very dearly indeed for consuming them (e.g. illegal drugs), i.e. with jail time. Secondly… in France and some US states unhealthy snack foods like chips and soft drinks are already subject to taxes.

Currently, even people who would otherwise want to eat healthily are discouraged from doing so because of higher prices because this is a niche market squeezed by the mainstream food market which is high in fat and sodium.

Incidentally, however, I have always supported legalizing all drugs, for the usual health, monetary and battling hypocrisy reasons, although they would remain heavily taxed (except red wine and to a lesser extent white wine, the consumption of which will be encouraged in moderate daily doses). On the topic of which, fat is actually also a drug – it is both debilitating and makes you irritable and mentally sluggish if consumed to excess in one session.

Finally, consumption of high fat foods will not, of course, be banned outright. You can still stuff yourself with butter and high-fat cheese if you really want to, you’ll just have to pay more for it.

Consumption Patterns Will Change

Today, there is an illogical situation in which rich cakes sometimes cost substantially less than an equivalent weight in fruit or salad, in supermarkets or in catering. The fat tax will reverse this state of affairs by encouraging people to switch consumption patterns to a lower fat, healthier diet. After all, elasticity is high within foods.

Currently, even people who would otherwise want to eat healthily are discouraged from doing so because of higher prices because this is a niche market squeezed by the mainstream food market which is high in fat and sodium.

Yes, it will affect the poor more than the rich. However, consider also the fact that it is the poor who suffer most from low-quality diets and the attendant symptons of obesity, heart disease, etc. Money from the fat tax can be used to support subsidies to healthy foods, community sports programs and a system of preventative healthcare, all of which are sorely lacking in Russia and the industrialized West.

A fat tax is a profoundly pro-poor measure.

A Market-Based Solution

I have considered converting the food industry into a totally planned thing, on the Soviet model but focused on the goal of fat reduction. Inefficiencies will invariably develop; but since… a) [food production] constitutes a fairly small portion of GDP; b) the goals of what to increase, what prices to set, are quite clear; and c) there aren’t many food products (relative to advanced industrial goods), it is a sound proposal.

Nonetheless, I think the market-based solution (fat tax, but free setting of prices) should first be completely explored and the planned model considered only if the former fails in its objectives (say, reduce by 50%+ annual cases of heart disease mortality, etc, over a decade since its full implementation). …

[Personally], I have cut out all butter, margarine, vegetable oils (switching to things like balsamic vinegar, salsa and low fat, low sodium tomato sauce and bolognese); cut out jams with any added sugars (there are some preserved with fruit concentrate, which I think is OK); only consume skimmed milk, low-fat cheese; no chocolate or coffee; a glass of red wine per day; only do skinless chicken breast or fish; cut out egg yolks. Of course, I don’t always follow it, but the only exceptions are in social settings where I go to a party or gathering, etc. As long as interruptions are infrequent rather than systematic, all is good.

Chicken and fish can be greatly enhanced by tossing in lemon, peppers, all kinds of spices, etc, and served with rice, pasta, etc. … For instance, you can even make a delicious carrot cake (calories 159, cholesterol 0, fat 0.6g, calories from fat 3%).

The point is that a low fat diet is only a little bit more restrictive than an unrestricted fat diet, if you bother to find/adapt the appropriate recipes, and it is orders of magnitude better for health/wellbeing. …

The key point is not increased longevity, which due to the high standards of treatment-based modern medical care, is not going to be much more than 5 years or so. The key point is a much increased healthy life expectancy. …

Note how in the UK life expectancy has increased much more rapidly than healthy life expectancy. The main trend in this period? More consumption of fats, especially saturated, in the forms of fast food, which has increased obesity levels significantly over this period.

So the question isn’t whether you’d like a few more years or not, but whether or not you want to spend the last few years of your life incapacitated and hooked up to mediciny machines.

At least so far. If medical progress continues and radical life extension therapies become available by the middle of this century, those few added years could make the difference between death and immortality!


A few qualifiers and clarifications I would add:

  • The major arguments stand, though today I would reduce the emphasis on just fat (indeed, some of it has a positive effect like nuts) and highlight the dangers of consuming a lot of food with a high glycemic load.
  • Make this book (Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil) required reading. Whether or not you are a singularitarian, the health advice in it applies to everyone.

Finally, despite the perceived “statism” behind this approach I should emphasize that my own life philosophy is that it does not pay to wait for the government to “help” you and instead take the personal initiative to guarantee your own health and wellbeing. Nor are private corporations your salvation. They are interested only in profits, not people, however hard they pretend otherwise.

Above is my perception of the medical-industrial complex. Wanna deal with them?

* They took out things tangential to the argument (mostly Russia-related, since remember, back in April 2008 this blog was still Da Russophile), as well as the irreverent humor. 😉


  1. Woe to the Republic! And here we see the decline of liberty manifest!

    I am confused. You discuss how a fat tax could be implemented, and you even go so far as to describe the social benefits a fat tax might have, but you never did explain why any of this is the concern of the government in the first place. Outside of your throw-away reference to universal health care, no attempt is made to convince the reader that this is within the bounds of proper governance. Indeed, I see no evidence at all that the government has the authority to play the part of consumption chief at all!

    It is the unstated assumptions of any analysis that are most revealing. The assumptions found within this piece (this whole series of fat tax articles, really) are frightening.

    I could explain why this is so, but someone else has done a satisfactory job on this count already. In exhibit A, I give you William Saletan, writing in Slate Magazine.

    Then They Came for the Fresca: The growing ambitions of the food police.
    Saletan, William. Slate Magazine. 22 September 2009.

    Read what Saletan has to say. He is right, and I can’t add much to it.

    • Government regulates alcohol and especially drug consumption heavy-handedly. If you accept that – which the vast majority of people do – it would be logical to likewise accept its authority over food pricing. (Whether the ideal society should have such a government is another matter).

      I for one think obesity is no different from alcoholism, if anything its worse because its sore on the eyes. So fat tax is justified by myself on these grounds. 🙂

      That said, I’m not necessarily for a fat tax in states without public healthcare systems, e.g. the US – though I would add that the resulting high rates of obesity / morbidity arising from the American fast food culture raise insurance premiums for everyone else, so even here it’s not that simple.

      PS. Waiting for Dietwald to furiously storm in here any hour now. 😉

  2. You never did answer my question Antoly. ^_~

    I remind you that I said “I see no evidence that the government has the authority to play the consumption police”. Consumption includes alcohol and other drugs.

    For what it is worth, I think a meaningful distinction can and should be drawn between alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs that impair judgment and drugs like tobacco (and presumably fatty foods) that simply have ill side effects.

    In a private correspondence with a libertarian friend of mine, I expressed this idea in what I called “The Analogy of a Rottweiler.”

    I am the owner of a Rottweiler. I happen to love my Rottweiler a great deal; indeed, one could say that the dog was my greatest joy in life. I would do anything to make this dog happy if given the chance. Unfortunately, this dog, being a Rottweiler, does not feel the as much love for the general populace as he does for me. Children in particular irk him beyond measure- I am quite sure that the first child who came within snapping distance of his mouth would lose a hand (if not worse). I usually keep this dog in a small kennel where I know he won’t be able to harm anyone. I know that if I let the dog loose the chance of some bystander receiving an injury is not a small one. However, over the last few days the dog has been whining something terrible, and I cannot stand to hear such cries of sorrow. So I decide to open up the kennel and let the dog run lose across the neighborhood. Within a couple minutes I hear a scream- the dog had attacked a hapless woman, leaving her leg a tangled and bloody mess. In a stroke of brilliance, I find the way to justify my actions: “I did not infringe upon anybody’s freedom” I declare. “I simply opened the door to my dog’s kennel. I had no control over what the dog did after that, and as such, I should not be held accountable for opening that kennel- it was certainly within my rights to do so.”

    At this point a local police officer walks up to me and says, “Sorry chap, but you happen to be wrong about that. You are only correct on one count- you didn’t have any control over what your dog’s actions once you let him loose. However, you did have full knowledge of what might happen if your dog was not in his kennel. Because you had the knowledge when you opened that cage, you are responsible for anything the dog did once he left his kennel.”

    Now after reading this lengthy analogy, I am pretty sure you all get my point. A person under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not have the ability to think or perceive clearly, and as such, they can no more be held accountable for their actions than can a person who is mentally ill. The person who drives in an erratic fashion because he is intoxicated drives no different than the person who drives in an erratic fashion because he is having a stroke- both are clearly driving in a fashion that infringes on other people’s liberty, property, and right to life. Furthermore, the person who is intoxicated has no more control over his driving than the person who is suffering from a stroke. Under the libertarian system promoted by Miss —-, both cases should be treated the same, as both are the exact same crime. It does not take a genius to figure out that something is wrong with this scenario- but what is it?

    The difference between the two men is simple. While both men had no control over their actions while they were committing the crime, only one man made the choice to put himself in a position where he would have no control over his actions. When you ingest, inhale, absorb, or otherwise partake of mind altering drugs, you destroy your agency. If you take drugs with the full knowledge that you will lose this agency, you have made the choice to infringe on the freedom of others. Because this choice WAS conscious, you are held accountable for the actions you may perform in your altered state.* That, ladies and gentlemen, is why the United States government is justified in punishing individuals who choose to take Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, and other illegal substances.


    *Along a similar line of thinking, a man who has sold classified information to an FBI plant is still guilty of treason. This is not because he actually committed treason- the FBI agent is part of the American government- but because he intended too. Consuming drugs is a crime of intent

    I hope this analogy makes clear my thinking on this issue. One should have the freedom to make the choice to damage one’s own body. No government has the authority to intervene. The logical corollary to this is that individuals alone should be responsible for their choices, and the ills effects of these choices should not be foisted onto the collective.

    Judgment inhibiting drugs, however, foist there effects upon the collective all by themselves – they serve as a present danger to the liberty and health of those around the drug user. The state, therefore, has the authority to regulate or ban their consumption.

    (The constitution, of course, does not provide this authority anyway, so really this discussion should be mute.)

  3. Hi there

    BBC World Service radio are debating the idea of a fat tax. I came across your blog.

    The programme, World Have Your Say is specifically asking whether fat people should pay more. We are a global call in show with our biggest audiences in North America and West Africa.

    Keen to chat more to you about your possible participation. We are on at 1800-1900 GMT. Is there a number I can reach you on?



  4. I’m all for a fatty tax, they’re costing me money, but not so much for taxing fatty food. I’m a healthy guy and I could eat fatty foods all day long without gaining any fat.

  5. Forget about taxing foods. It won’t work. You may raise some money, but you won’t change behavior enough to make a difference.

    If you REALLY want a fat tax, then tax the FAT! Put everyone on a scale before payday, and take an $x.00/ lb. tax for the extra cost they inflict on the rest of us. This is intellectually and financially defensible on both 100% libertarian or 100% socialistic grounds.

    You may have the right to be fat, but why should I pay for it?