Sometimes other countries have the right idea. Over the weekend, in an effort to combat obesity, Denmark announced that it was introducing the world’s first fat food tax–basically charging people more money for foods that are unhealthy and likely to result in weight gain and heart disease.
Specifically, the surcharge will apply to items with more than 2.3% saturated fats, adding roughly an additional $2.90 per 2.2 pounds of foods like butter, milk, cheese, pizza, oils and some meats. Not that all milk (skim) or all meats (lean cuts) are a heart-attack or weight-gain waiting to happen, so it would be interesting to know if the tax is across the board or it it applies only to certain “levels” of these foods. Regardless, the news didn’t stop Denmark residents from hoarding the grocery stores before the tax went into effect on Saturday.
While Denmark isn’t known for being a country that struggles with weight as much as, say, the U.S. with only 10% of their population considered obese versus one-third of Americans, the Nordic country credits its slimmer population to policies such as this fat food tax. In 2004, they made it illegal for any food to have more than 2% trans fats, and in 2010, they increased taxes on ice cream, chocolate and sweets by a whopping 25%. They have also increased taxes on soft drinks, tobacco and alcohol.
In a prior statement, health minister Jakob Axel Nielsen said he feels responsible for the health of his people:
Higher fees on sugar, fat and tobacco is an important step on the way toward a higher average life expectancy in Denmark because saturated fats can cause cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Let’s think about the implications if the U.S. did the same by implementing a fat food tax on all unhealthy foods (not just the high-fat ones). First of all, tax money would increase. Perhaps this could be used to directly fund more healthy living and sports programs in our schools or making fresher produce more readily available in certain geographical “food deserts”. Second, junk food consumption would most likely decrease. Yes, this is in theory, but if fresh fruits and vegetables suddenly became substantially cheaper than chips and cookies (which they sometimes are now, but they are often viewed as being more expensive), we would have to think spending would follow. And finally, Americans would eat better and feel better because ultimately, high-fat, high-sugar and highly-processed foods would be out of reach for many people. This could only result in a decrease in our obesity epidemic, which of course, would reduce the amount that we pay towards the nations faltering health care system.
Idealistic? Maybe. But worth trying? Definitely.