Editorial | An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of fat

What’s more Danish than a Danish pastry? Taxes, of course. For those familiar with Danish politics, it should come as no surprise that a majority in parliament voted in favour of implementing a ‘fat tax’ this year in order to get people to consume less saturated fats.

Regardless of political stripe, lawmakers turn to taxes (or levies, as they are often known) as their tool of choice when seeking to modify people’s behaviour – be that driving, smoking, drinking cola or wasting water.

What is surprising is that the world’s first ‘fat tax’ has been adopted in a country known more for its healthy lifestyle than for its girth. Danes are slightly below the EU obesity average of 15 percent, and they are significantly lighter than Americans, whose obesity rate is 33 percent.

But even with all the cycling, the healthy dark rye bread and the slender figures, life expectancies here lag behind other European countries. In the 1950s Denmark had one of the worldÂ’s highest life expectancies; today it ranks at the bottom of developed countries.

There could be any number of reasons for the slide, but diet is certainly a factor. And with sin taxes already in place on tobacco, alcohol and sugar – as well as a full ban on trans-fatty acids – there’s no reason why there shouldn’t also be a disincentive to consuming saturated fats, given their link to heart disease.

The state deserves credit for trying to do something to improve our health, but it should listen closely to the voices of economists, who question the fat taxÂ’s effectiveness in influencing peopleÂ’s behaviour, and nutrition experts, who question the types of fatty foods that get taxed.

If the state really is serious about influencing peopleÂ’s fat-consumption habits, instead of just punishing them each time they indulge, it should raise the tax to a prohibitive level, exempt healthier fatty foods such as olive oil and lean meat, and make it cheaper to buy fruits and vegetables.

Another shortcoming of this fat tax is that there is no requirement for how the 130 million kroner it will generate should be spent. It would only make sense to use the funds on programmes to encourage healthy lifestyles, but there is no obligation to do so.

Given the 85 billion kroner hole in the budget, itÂ’s easy to understand why lawmakers turned to a tax hike instead of a tax cut. But with the state responsible for footing the bill to treat lifestyle-related illnesses, the short-term cost of making it cheaper to live healthier is an investment the country can live with.