A TAX WITH OUR INTERESTS AT HEART

In October this year, Denmark introduced a “fat tax”. The Milk Moustache’s Lauren Fitzpatrick says Australia needs to follow their lead to help curb our obesity crisis.

Australia is one of the fattest countries in the world, and high fat, fast food, is cheap and readily accessible. But government campaigns to combat obesity aren’t working. The current campaign ‘Swap It, Don’t Stop It’ encourages Aussies to stop some of the things they’re doing now, for healthier choices. This is reminiscent of the 1975, ‘Life. Be In It’ campaign featuring Norm, a couch potato who needed to become more active. Since its kickoff, we are no thinner. The Medical Journal of Australia found that obesity has more than doubled in the two decades preceding 2003. And Eric encouraging us to ‘swap it’, is unlikely to turn the tide.

Australia must turn to more extreme measures, and we need it now. The Obesity Policy Coalition says Australia should follow the lead of Denmark and tax foods high in saturated fats, to curb the rising obesity crisis. I don’t think we have much choice. Denmark introduced the ‘fat tax’ on October 1 this year, and has started levying the tax on foods with a saturated fat content of more than 2.3 per cent. The tax is adding cost to all those things Australian’s love – like butter, hamburgers, and potato chips. This is exactly what this country needs to fight the obesity epidemic. Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition says, “price is a key driver in consumers’ decisions”. The gap between the relative prices of healthy versus unhealthy food products in Australia needs to drop.

And it’s clear that it’s almost impossible to make healthy food cheaper. Our farmers are already toughing it out in these conditions, and with Woolies and Coles currently dominating our food market, there’s little hope that prices for healthy options will come down. But increasing the price of high-fat, low-nutrient and tasty foods, including fast food, is much more viable, and will make unhealthy foods less desirable. We know that when food prices rise or fall, consumers respond accordingly. We need the tax to change the eating habits of Australians.

But Aussie consumers aren’t the only ones to blame for this epidemic. We must also change the behaviour of corporations that make and market these unhealthy products. However, the fat tax won’t make this any easier. Experience has taught us that businesses are going to up the ante, in the same way that they fought against taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling. They will use innovation and creativity to attract consumers to their reinvented products, and they will respond by pouring more money into advertising. Why? Because they have much to lose.

This won’t be an easy fight but it’s a fight this country needs to win for the healthy future of its inhabitants. There is an obvious obesity problem in Australia, costing the country nearly $60 billion. Six in ten Australian adults, and one in four children, are overweight or obese, increasing our risk of developing chronic health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The prevalence of obesity is not in dispute, but its spread and policy responses are. It may seem like blanket taxes such as the fat tax are unfair, because they only affect people who can least afford it. But life isn’t fair, and other interventions like education about healthier food choices, and dietary awareness classes in schools clearly aren’t working.

Kate Carnell, Chief Executive from the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) says a similar tax would not effectively address Australia’s obesity levels. Given that there’s already a 10 per cent GST on processed foods which came into effect in 2000, obesity levels have continued to rise over the past decade.

But for me, there’s no harm in trying. Raising taxes is one way that could positively impact on our unhealthy eating habits by hitting the consumer where it hurts most.

2 Responses to “A TAX WITH OUR INTERESTS AT HEART”

  1. AliceC November 14, 2011 at 12:23 am #

    It’s not fat that causes obesity, it’s processed sugars and carbohydrates, mainly wheat. My friend has lost over 20kg simply by reducing carbs and removing wheat and processed foods from her diet.

  2. DamienM November 22, 2011 at 2:29 am #

    That’s a very big call @AliceC, saying that wheat is the main culprit in causing the obesity endemic in the Western World. While refined carbohydrates are not recommended there is much more to this public health dilema. The cause of obesity is a combination of an ever increasing availability of high energy low nutrient foods, the increased portion size of many foods and the decreasing levels of physical activity. A tax on food that is high in saturated fat will have little or no impact on the rates of obesity. People will still consume the foods they want and manufacturers will work out ways around the tax. Many offending foods will not even come under the tax. Soft drink for example is high in kilojoules and low in nutrients, highly consumed but has no fat in it and therefore would not be taxed. The answers are complex and highly political stop gap measures are not needed and will only watse time and resources that could be more effectively used devising a strategey that may actually work.

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