Researchers urge government to ‘seriously consider’ food taxes

The paper's authors stress that dietary change is necessary, but that more information is needed on the long-term impact of food taxes

The UK government should seriously consider taxing unhealthy foods and drinks to reduce their consumption, a paper from the Food Research Collaboration (FRC) has urged.

The paper highlights research indicating that food taxes reduce consumption of the taxed items, and also highlights the higher price of healthy foods compared to foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. Its authors suggest that even if taxes alone will not improve health significantly, they could be worthwhile for other reasons, including raising revenue and conveying a message about the harm of overconsumption.

“Measures such as taxes should be more seriously considered, as consumers do take prices into account when buying food,” said study co-author Dr Laura Cornelsen, a research fellow at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“However, it’s important not to have illusions that a tax alone will magically solve our nutrition-related health problems. While not a silver bullet, a well-designed tax has potential for positive health impact if implemented in combination with other strategies and policies that aim to improve our food environment, tackle obesity and nutrition related disease.”

Lack of will

The authors acknowledge that introducing such taxes is challenging because of opposition from industry – as well as a lack of political will.

Professor of Food Policy at City University London, Tim Lang, said: “Food taxes may make politicians nervous but must be explored, not least because everybody pays in the end through NHS costs or lost quality of life.

“…We need a grown-up discussion about how the tax system could be reoriented to prevent ill-health. And this needs to be coupled with a sensible discussion about what a good food system should be for the 21st century. Ever more sugary, salty, over-processed foods is not the healthy direction.”

Arguments against taxation

The paper notes some of the most common arguments against health-related taxes, including that taxes are regressive, disproportionately affecting the poorest in society – an issue the paper’s authors suggest could be addressed by redistributing tax revenue to a targeted voucher scheme for healthy foods.

In addition, industry has argued that food and drink taxes lead to economic and job losses, but the paper says these claims usually come from a narrow industry perspective, rather than looking at where jobs may be created elsewhere when spending is diverted. The paper also cites the argument that taxes are paternalistic, but points out the historical taxation of other commodities known to have negative impacts, such as that of alcohol and tobacco.

The authors stress that although the need for dietary change is beyond doubt, the long-term impact of food taxes on consumption has yet to be calculated, despite their use in Denmark, Hungary, France, Finland, Mexico and parts of the USA.

The full paper is available to download here.

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"We suggest that energy-dense foods might be taxed, while fruit and vegetables whose prices often rise compared to other foods, might be subsidised. [But] much comes down to the political appetite to contemplate taxing foods," wrote the authors.

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Price is one of the most important factors that determine consumer purchasing behaviour, it said

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