Opinion | Fat tax cannot fight the ‘fat’

Obesity has become a serious issue in many Western countries, and the obesity rate is consistently growing worldwide. From 1 October 2011, Denmark began imposing a levy on fatty foods aimed at reducing their consumption. Denmark is the first country in the world to introduce a ‘fat tax’ in order to protect public health. Butter, oils and high-fat dairy products have seen the biggest price increases; products with more than 2.3 percent saturated fat will be taxed 16 kroner per kilogram of saturated fat.

Many countries, including the US with one of the highest obesity rate in the world, are paying attention to the effects of the fat tax in Denmark. This tax policy, however, cannot lower obesity rates because it will reduce the quality of life of obese people who are mostly low income earners.

Tax policy does not always produce good results. People usually try to avoid taxes, and as a consequence, the policy often ends up with an unexpected result. In 1696, William III in England collected taxes from people who owned a house with more than six windows. As a result, people started to block windows to get a tax exemption. The tax policy lasted over 150 years, and there are still some old buildings with virtually no windows remaining in England. There are lots of precedents of tax policy failure, and the fat tax in Denmark will also inevitably produce unexpected results.

When the Danish government imposes a levy on foods containing saturated fat, foods that are high in calories but low in cost such as fast food will likely be a target. Obese people who can afford healthier foods might turn to fruits and vegetables, but the problem is that a considerable number of obese people are in the low income class. “Socioeconomic status plays a significant role in obesity. Low income minority populations tend to experience obesity at a higher rate and are more likely to be overweight,” according to the Obesity Action Coalition. These people originally had little access to healthy foods because a head of lettuce is more expensive than a burger. Low income families have fewer food choices, so it is hard to expect them to buy healthier foods.

People in the low income class now feel a heavier financial burden since the cost of their staple foods has risen. It appears that they will reduce the frequency of meals or look for cheaper food that is not a target of fat tax.

Low price foods are likely to be high in sugar or carbohydrates, such as soft drinks. Scientists talking to the BBC expressed their scepticism of the fat tax, saying that salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates are more detrimental to health and should be tackled instead. As low income families consume sweetened products as an alternative, they could gain more weight or experience malnutrition and deteriorating health.

The Danish government has missed a fundamental point. The policy which was intended to improve peopleÂ’s health can instead worsen it. The government should formulate a policy that reduces poverty before imposing taxes on foods. It seems that a fat tax is not the best solution at this point.

Then how can we stop people from eating too much fattening food? First, saturated fat is not the right target. There are dairy products or olive oil which contain saturated fat but do not solely causes obesity. There needs to be a clear standard of fattening food before a tax is imposed.
The government is trying to encourage overweight people to avoid junk food and to eat vegetables and fruits, but the low income group cannot usually afford to go to buy these types of food. The government could set up a subsidy for low income families so that they can afford healthier foods.

It seems that the Danish government has imposed a heavy burden on its people. The tax policy has even been called “a bureaucratic nightmare”, according to the BBC. The fat tax appears to be a hasty conclusion, telling people that fat makes fat, saturated fat is not the main cause of obesity. Socioeconomic status has driven people to become overweight. If the government wants to give low income families access to a nutritional diet it should control poverty before initiating tax policy.

The author is a student at the Hankuk (South Korea) University of Foreign Studies.