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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Should we have a fat tax?

As our very own PM knows all too well, nothing can alter public opinion as quickly as talk of another tax can, and as expected after the relatively fit and health Danes announced this weekend that they would be adopting a “fat tax”, it seems that many thin and fat Aussies are more than happy to share their thoughts on the subject.

A “fat tax” is not a simple concept, it involves closely examining the nutritional profiles of all foods that are relatively high in fat, whether it is full cream milk, processed snack foods or fried fast foods to determine what is the best and fairest way to isolate those that are contributing significant amounts of “bad fat” into our diets. The tax has to consider natural sources of saturated fat such as those found in dairy foods and meats, as opposed to those simply used to process and make high fat foods as well as considering foods that may be high in fat but which may be made using “better” types of fat. What has resulted is a tax that targets foods which contain >2.4% saturated fat, and only the saturated fats that result from processing the food, as opposed to that which naturally occurs. This means that in the case of a burger, the saturated fat of the meat is not taxed, only the oil used in making the burger.

At this point in time, bureaucratic groups step in and argue that such a tax is unfair to those from lower socioeconomic groups, as they are the ones who end up paying relatively more for foods high in fat. It is the point in which consumer advocates hop on their high horse and argue that we should not be making unhealthy food more expensive rather healthy food cheaper. It is also the time where anyone in general starts to complain about all of our taxes including the more than 10 year old GST and of course, the carbon tax.

So here is the newsflash. Australia is one of the fattest countries in the world and high fat, fast food is cheap and readily accessible. Despite slightly increased government spending which has targeted obesity in this country, we are no thinner. Public health messaging is not working, we need more drastic action and we need it now, and most importantly, we need some $ to pay for the health costs associated with obesity long term.

In case you have not heard, it is almost impossible to make healthy food cheaper, if you want that food to come from Australia. Our farmers are already doing it tough and with two major supermarket chains monopolizing the food market, there is little room to move in terms of the cost of fresh and healthy food for the bulk of the population. On the other hand, increasing the price of high fat, calorie dense, nutrient poor foods including fast food, pastry, snack food and full cream dairy is a viable option. It makes unhealthy foods less accessible as well as creating an income stream to pay for the enormous long term health costs of a diet high in saturated fat. Indirectly, it also encourages our major manufacturers and ultimately food controllers of processed and fast foods to consider the quality of the ingredients they are using to make our food, and ultimately shift towards ingredient options that are lower in saturated fat.

We could talk forever about how unfair it is, how a fat tax ignores the health effects of sugar, and how disadvantaged groups are being unfairly targeted but at the end of the day, life is not fair and perhaps it is worth remembering that you are only taxed if you buy the crap food, simple as that.