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Taxing unhealthy food and drinks to improve health

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 15 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2931
  1. Oliver T Mytton, academic clinical fellow,
  2. Dushy Clarke, researcher,
  3. Mike Rayner, director
  1. 1British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group, Department of Public Health, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 7LF, UK
  1. Correspondence to: O T Mytton oliver.mytton{at}
  • Accepted 2 April 2012

An increasing number of countries are introducing taxes on unhealthy food and drinks, but will they improve health? Oliver Mytton, Dushy Clarke, and Mike Rayner examine the evidence

In the past year Denmark has introduced a “fat tax,” Hungary a “junk food tax,” and France a tax on sweetened drinks.1 2 Peru has announced plans to tax junk food, and other countries, notably Ireland, are also considering such taxes. Last year’s UN high level summit on non-communicable disease recognised a role for food taxes,3 and the UK prime minster, David Cameron has said the UK should consider them.4

Despite this recent interest among policy makers there has been relatively little critical analysis. Discussion of the evidence of health effects and the important question of what to tax has often been lacking. Government intervention in the food market, in the form of agricultural subsidies and taxation that is unrelated to health, is often overlooked.

The terms used in the debate can be unclear and misleading. A fat tax may refer to a tax on fat, saturated fat, or the dietary causes of obesity. We prefer the broader term: health related food taxes, which includes any tax levied at a higher rate on food items that are considered unhealthy. This suggests a focus on overall health, rather than just obesity, and opens up the possibility of targeting different nutrients or parts of the diet to maximise overall health gains. As the burden of diet related disease (cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and dental caries) is large and greater than that attributed solely to obesity,5 this seems a more pragmatic approach.

Present taxes

The Hungarian and Danish health related food taxes are often held up as the first of a kind. While they are unusual in being explicit …

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