Taxing unhealthy fats can lead to healthier diets, new analysis shows

10 April 2016

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In a new paper published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food show that the Danish Saturated Fat Tax did have a positive impact on the nation’s health, despite what has been said by its critics.

The team – together with researchers from the University of Copenhagen - analysed in depth the effects of the short-lived and controversial Danish tax on saturated fat, which was in play from October 2011 to the end of 2012. It took the form of an excise tax of DKr 16 (€2.15) per kg of saturated fat on products with more than 2.3g of saturated fat per 100g.

Using data from a representative panel of over 2,500 households to estimate the changes in diet, the Copenhagen researchers found that the tax had a moderate but, overall, positive effect, on the Danish diet, i.e. a 4% reduction in the consumption of saturated fat – mainly from meat and dairy products - with an attendant increase in consumption of vegetables by 7.9%, and of fibre by 3.7%.

The Oxford researchers then used a comparative risk assessment model (PRIME: Preventable Risk Integrated Model) to analyse the effect on mortality rates and found that there were an estimated 123 averted deaths per year, of which more than 80% could be attributed to averted deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Professor Mike Rayner, Professor of Population Health at the University of Oxford, said: “Although the effects on diet and health were moderate they were positive. This study provides further evidence for the effectiveness of changing the ways foods are taxed for the benefit of our health, and gives us even more confidence that the Sugar Tax – announced by the Chancellor in the Budget last month – will have health benefits.

The team did find one adverse effect of the tax. Most age groups surveyed increased their salt consumption slightly, with the exception of younger women, but this wasn’t enough to counter the positive health effects overall, said Professor Rayner.

Although the Saturated Fat Tax was presented as a public health measure it was primarily designed to raise revenue as part of a package of fiscal reforms. In January 2013, just over a year after its introduction, the tax was abolished for political reasons. Negative coverage in the media blamed the tax for rising inflation, an increase in cross-border trade as Danes travelled to Sweden and Germany to do their shopping, and the loss of around 1,300 jobs.

Professor Rayner concluded: “There were criticisms that the tax was expensive to administer and had been poorly designed for purpose, but this was all before the health effects of the tax were known.”

Full paper: The effects of the Danish saturated fat tax on food and nutrient intake and modelled health outcomes: an econometric and comparative risk assessment evaluation

Further reading: The Danish tax on saturated fat: why it did not survive (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition), The rise and fall of the world’s first fat tax (Health Policy)