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:


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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!


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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. 😉

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