Very little nanny-state regulation in EU, research suggests

Hungary topped this year’s index on food with a score of 28 out of 100, largely thanks to “the most extensive system of food and soft drink taxes in Europe." ©iStock

Hungary is the worst “nanny-state” in the EU when it comes to laws relating to food and drink, but new research suggests most countries have so far shunned regulation aimed at controlling consumption.

The Nanny State Index, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the European Policy Information Centre, gives every EU country a score according to how it regulates private lifestyle choices – from relatively minor inconveniences to taxes and bans. The higher the score, the “less free” the country is.

In food and drink, five policies were assessed: taxation (up to 35 points), vending machines (10), energy drink regulations (5), advertising restrictions (25) and mandatory limits (25).

Hungary topped this year’s index on food with a score of 28 out of 100, largely thanks to “the most extensive system of food and soft drink taxes in Europe”. IEA highlighted the “legal limits on the amount of trans-fats that food can contain and limits on the amount of salt that can be put into bread”.

In addition, “sugary drinks and high fat meat are banned in public canteens and it is illegal to display salt and sugar shakers on tables in restaurants. There are also taxes on sugary drinks and energy drinks.”

France was second with 11 points, due to its tax on sweetened beverages and energy drinks. Free refills of soft drinks were also banned in January 2017, IEA noted.

However, no other country mustered more than 10 points out of 100. Indeed, 11 countries scored zero in the food category of this year’s index. This suggests member states are far from comfortable interfering with what people eat – or they’re not convinced that interference is an effective approach.

As obesity levels continue to rise, pressure has been growing on politicians to introduce tougher laws to reduce consumption of unhealthy food and drinks. Sugar taxes, restrictions on junk food advertising and mandatory reformulation targets have all been mooted – and in some countries implemented.

In a recent survey of FoodNavigator readers, 71% said they expect more European countries to consider taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. Several readers suggested that these would be used to generate tax revenues rather than improve public health.

Campaigners have long argued that these are bold, brave and necessary policies. Meanwhile, the food and drink industry has defended industry-led initiatives and claimed taxes will be ineffective and unfair.

The IEA predicted that more regulation is on the way. “Sin taxes” will fall most heavily on the poor and fuel the black market as prices rise, whilst advertising bans will “restrict competition and stifle innovation”, the organisation said.

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