'Fat tax' ineffective in countering obesity

22 February 2012

Burger and friesBy Alex Klaushofer

Taxing unhealthy foods in a bid to persuade people to eat a better diet would be an ineffective way of tackling obesity, ESRC-supported research has found.

A study of inequalities in diet and health carried out by Professor Richard Tiffin, Matthieu Arnoult and Matthew Salois concludes that a so-called 'fat tax' would hit the poor hardest while failing to produce any significant health benefits.

"The paradox is that the more effective the policy is likely to be in terms of health, the worse its effects will be on the poor," says Tiffin, who is professor of applied economics at the University of Reading. "By forcing them to spend a greater proportion of their income on food, this tax would be regressive in its impact."

One unintended consequence might be to make the diets of the poorest even less healthy as the amount of money they have available for food is reduced, he adds.

Professor Tiffin's research is part-funded by the ESRC under the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

The government is examining the case for a tax levied on high-fat foods following a statement from the Prime Minister in October 2011 that it was a policy worth considering.

The announcement followed the introduction the same week, in Denmark, of a tax on foods containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat as a way of discouraging unhealthy eating and reducing the cost of obesity to the country's health service.

Soon afterwards, France followed suit, introducing a tax on sugary drinks like Coca Cola with the aim of discouraging rising obesity levels among children.

The UK has the highest obesity rates in Europe, with nearly 25 per cent of the adult population deemed obese. The European average stands at 15 per cent, according to figures from the European Union's statistic agency Eurostat, which compared obesity levels in 19 countries in 2008-2009.

Professor Tiffin's research, which uses established data to model the effects of price increases on the eating habits of groups with poor diets, concludes that a tobacco-style tax on unhealthy foods would do little to change eating habits.

"There's a lot more to explain why people choose to eat badly, apart from the price of your foods," he says, adding that culture, economic background, and social grouping all play a part in determining poor dietary choices.

"Unlike tobacco, food is good. Even foods that have some bad components have some quite important nutrients in them as well," he explains, citing dairy products as an example.

The data from the study also suggests that, while taxing targeted foods might bring moderate behavioural changes for some people on poor diets, those at most risk from the consequences of poor nutrition would be unlikely to change their eating habits at all.

Professor Tiffin and other colleagues at Reading University are planning to embark on a three-year programme of research to identify the complex psycho-social reasons why people make poor dietary choices.

Taken together, the two projects will shed light on a policy area in which there has, so far, been little evidence-based research.

"The study will be the first to separate consumers on the basis of underlying determinants of behaviour and to look at the cognitive underpinnings of behaviour," says Professor Tiffin.

A policy to reduce obesity should invest more public money in programs that promote physical activity, rather than making unhealthy food less attractive, concludes Dr Alberto Longo at Queen's University Belfast.

The research project 'Trading off lifestyle options to reduce the risk of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) in Northern Ireland', part-funded by the ESRC through the Centre of Excellence for Public Health Northern Ireland, looked at how much people were willing to pay to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

"Our results show that people with high BMI levels are more likely to choose a lifestyle option characterised by increased levels of physical activity, rather than by a food basket that entails a sacrifice in terms of reduced fat content," the researchers conclude.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from Monday 20 February to Sunday 26 February.