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Tax processed food to subsidise healthier options and tackle obesity, says think tank

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h2569 (Published 12 May 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2569
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1The BMJ

The tendency for common processed foods such as crisps and biscuits to become cheaper over the past 30 years, while fruit and vegetables have become more expensive, is driving the obesity epidemic, a think tank has said. It recommends that governments consider introducing taxes on unhealthy foods and use these to subsidise other food groups.

The Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues, studied food prices in four countries—Brazil, China, Korea, and Mexico—and compared what was happening there to food prices changes in the United States and United Kingdom.

It found that in the newly rich countries fruit and vegetables had risen in price by up to 91% between 1990 and 2012, a bigger price hike than in any other food group. Over the same period some processed foods, such as ready prepared meals, had dropped in price by up to 20%.1

The report gave several examples of changes in these countries. In Mexico, where almost 70% of adults are overweight or obese, ready meals have become cheaper and the cost of green vegetables has risen since 1990, it said. And in Brazil, where the prevalence of overweight and obese adults has doubled since 1980, crisps, biscuits, energy bars, and sugary drinks formulated to be “hyper-palatable” are much more widely eaten than previously.

Over the past 30 years in the UK the price of an ice cream halved, while the price of fresh green vegetables tripled, the report found.

Steve Wiggins, a researcher at the institute and an author of the report, said, “In Brazil the consumption of ‘ultra-processed’ ready to eat food has risen from 80 kg per person per year in 1999 to around 110 kg per person per year by 2013. Using the weight of the food as a measure, this is equivalent to each person eating an extra 140 Big Macs a year.”

The report said that technologies that resulted in higher quality vegetables and that allowed cut, trimmed, bagged, and washed vegetables to be available all year round may have pushed up their prices, while advances in food manufacturing and lower costs of transport and logistics could explain the drop in prices of some processed foods such as noodles, ice cream, crisps, and biscuits.

No country has yet halted the rising prevalence of overweight and obesity. But in January 2014 Mexico introduced taxes on sugary drinks and energy dense food.

“Everyone is watching to see what effects these taxes have, as policymakers in rich and poor countries struggle to respond to the looming health epidemic caused by changing diets,” said Wiggins.

More countries should consider similar policies, the report recommended.

Wiggins said, “Research in the UK in 2009 predicted that imposing a VAT [value added tax] style 17.5% tax on less healthy food and using the proceeds to subsidise fruit and vegetables would save between 3600 and 6400 premature deaths a year from diet related disease.

“Even the lower estimate is more than twice as many as the number of people that die on the roads in the UK, and a huge effort is put into road safety.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2569

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