Optimum “health tax” for meat calculated

06 November 2018

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A new study from researchers at the Oxford Martin School has found that a health tax on red and processed meat could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over US$40 billion in healthcare costs every year.

The World Health Organisation classifies beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and as probably carcinogenic when eaten unprocessed. These three types of meat have also been linked to increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high- and middle-income countries. This has significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded in many countries, and on economies, which are losing workers due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill.

Published today in the journal PLoS One, the study, led by Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health, found that red meat would need to be 20% more expensive and processed meat, like bacon, sausages and jerky, would need to be more than double its current price to account for these health costs.

The study calculated that in 2020 there will be 2.4 million deaths attributable to red and processed meat consumption, as well as $285 billion in costs related to healthcare. It then set out to estimate the optimal levels of taxation in 149 world regions to account for the marginal costs associated with consumption and to encourage consumers to make healthier choices.

The research suggests that if the optimum health taxes were introduced, the consumption of processed meat would decline by about two portions per week in high-income countries and by 16% globally. Unprocessed red meat consumption would remain steady, due to consumers substituting it for processed meat. This could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over US$40 billion in healthcare costs every year. Tax revenues would amount to US$172 billion globally and cover 70% of the health costs that red and processed meat consumption put on society. To fully cover the costs, the health taxes would have to be doubled.

“I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers. A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems,” said Dr Springmann.

He added: “Nobody wants governments to tell people what they can and can’t eat. However, our findings make it clear that the consumption of red and processed meat has a cost, not just to people’s health and to the planet, but also to the healthcare systems and the economy.”

The reduced consumption of processed meat identified by the study would also have positive knock-on effects on climate change and body weight. The researchers found it would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by over one hundred million tonnes, mainly due to lower beef consumption, and reduce levels of obesity by driving consumers to lower-calorie substitutions.