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Are taxes on fatty foods having their desired effects on health?

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6885 (Published 16 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6885

Re: Are taxes on fatty foods having their desired effects on health?

Professor Winkler and Caillavet & Darmon, raise important issues related to the demise of the Danish fat tax. Professor Winkler calls for more information on the political process surrounding the success or failure of nutrition policies and Caillavet & Darmon suggest regulation for low cost reformulated products as an alternative. Also Professor Winkler correctly states that Smed and Robertson did not mention the debate raging in 2012 concerning the repeal of the tax by Danish government as of January 2013. Until more in-depth investigations are published this commentary provides an anecdotal review of the process that appeared to be behind the decision to repeal of the tax and asks whether any lessons can be learned regarding future tax related nutrition policies.

Although “luxury” food items such as chocolate, ice-cream etc., have been taxed for many years, it represented a remarkably shift when the previous Danish government in 2011 ruled that saturated fats were to be taxed. It appears to be the first time any European Government decided to tax saturated fat as a compound. In addition to this decision the present Government that took office in late 2011 decided to implement another “compound” tax, namely on food containing sugar as from January 2013.

As yet no systematic investigations have been published regarding the political process that unfolded before and after the repeal of the fat tax. During 2012 the existing fat tax and the planned sugar tax was more or less treated as one topic in the huge media debate that followed which makes a detailed analysis a complex task. However it seems that the role of consensus building between the affected stakeholders was important for the final outcome along with high profile media coverage.

The media played a key role in promoting political debate especially with regard to the claimed increase in trading across Denmark´s borders. Allegedly increased border trade, due to lower taxation and VAT in Germany appears to have played an important role in the politician’s decision. More than 27.800 hits for “border trade and food taxation” were reported using Google and shows how storytelling and media plays a significant role in the policy making process. In a statement from the political settlement among Government partners on November 10, 2012 the Ministry of Taxes said that the tax was repealed because it had been criticized for increasing food prices, for doing so in already difficult times, for increasing the administrative burden of Danish businesses making them less competitive and for leading to risk of job losses and higher unemployment rates. It was also stated that it was feared that the lower income groups would be hardest hit and it was concluded that there would be little political will to risk to contribute to increased social inequalities.

Food taxation is a highly sensitive issue because a range of stakeholders have strong vested interests. On the other hand taxation is high on the agenda as a potential preventive measure. It would therefore be useful if lessons can be learned from the Danish experience. The following observations provide some insight into the dynamics of the political process

1. Increased border trade: Claims reported by industry that fat taxes would lead to a loss of jobs in the food processing, manufacturing and retail sector was a recurring theme in 2012. It was argued that although the DK/GE border trade (which accounts for approx. half of border trade) was mostly limited to “luxury” items (alcohol, tobacco, confectionary and soda) averaging 10 billion DKK annually (1,3 billion Euros) it was now spreading to foods in particular foods containing fat. In addition it was argued that the trade seemed to be increasing although these allegations was rejected by the Ministry of Taxes

2. Administrative burden for food industry: The administrative burden was repeatedly highlighted in the media. Possibly the ongoing financial crisis and the reluctance of government to restrict the competiveness of industry might have played a role. A report from the Danish Food Industry (2012) stated that “as a result of our lobbying, there now seems to be a widespread political recognition that the tax is a mistake. The report further stated that the tax on saturated fat has been raising several problems. According to the report problems included

No connection between the content of fat in product and tax paid.
Administrative burdens caused by the supplier’s declarations and registrations.
Meat processing industry subject to tax on the fat content of meat not included in the finished product.
Tax on meat is a flat rate, and does not reflect the actual fat content.
Double taxation on chocolate/confectionary, as the final product is subject to the sugar confectionary/chocolate tax as well as the added saturated fat tax

3. Alliances and partnerships. The debate during 2012 showed that a wide range of stakeholders began to get involved in the policy process. Since the heavy administrative burden reported by the food industry seemed to coincide with the concerns raised by trade unions of the taxes leading to loss of jobs an alliance arguing for the removal of the tax began to develop. The alliance resulted in the planning of a joint meeting arranged by a broad range of stakeholders on November 9 on the negative consequences of border trade with special emphasis on food shopping patterns.

4. Absence of advocacy. It seems that health promoters were poorly prepared to communicate the emerging evidence about the effects of taxation. This included new evidence from a study by Jensen & Smed (2012) suggesting a decrease in consumption by 10 – 20% as a result of the fat tax. According to Mazzocchi (2012) Denmark appeared to have the most tax supportive population (76%). Similarly it was showed by Læssø et al (2012) that 75% of Danes were in favor of a differentiated VAT with healthy products becoming cheaper and unhealthy ones more expensive.

In conclusion: future regulations and fiscal measures should build on existing nutritional evidence both within and outside the food industry and consider healthy dietary reformulation of lower cost foods and reduction of administrative burden. In addition any future measures must be evaluated by health promoters using the most appropriate investigative methods to produce reliable results and to encourage broad supportive public alliances.

References
Caillavet, F & Darmon, N, Are taxes on fatty foods having their desired effects on health? 5 nov 2012, BMJ
Danish Academy of Technical Sciences, ATV. Economic nutrition policy tools - useful in the challenge to combat obesity and poor nutrition? December 2007. ISBN-13 978-87-7836-045-8
Danish Government Prevention Commission (Forebyggelseskommission, 2009). Vi kan leve længere og sundere. Forebyggelseskommissionens anbefalinger til en styrket forebyggende indsats. (in Danish), April 2009
Factsheet – tax on saturated fat in Denmark. Danish Food & Drink Federation August 2012. Availabel at http://foedevarer.di.dk/SiteCollectionDocuments/Factsheet_tax_on_saturat...

Food culture, assessed march 31, 2013. http://www.foodculture.dk/Kalender/2012/November/Konference_om_graenseha...
Jensen, JD & Smed, S (2012): The Danish tax on saturated fat: Short run effects on consumption and consumer prices of fats, FOI Working Paper 2012 / 14, Institute of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen. Available at http://okonomi.foi.dk/workingpapers/WPpdf/WP2012/WP_2012_14_Danish_fat_t...
Læssø, A; Fisker, L; Jensen, S; Kendal, C & Frydkjær, T . (2012) Prevention – according to the danes (in Danish Forebyggelse – ifølge danskerne. Published by Mandag MorgenValkendorfsgade 13, DK-1009 København K. Available at www.mm.dkTrygFonden
Mazzocchi, M University of Bologna, Department of Statistics. Healthy eating policies: What do EU citizens think? Eatwell/EUPHA conference Malta, November 8, 2012
Ministry of Taxes. Lavere afgifter for forbrugere, “Lower taxes for consumers” (in Danish), text from political settlement among Government partners on November 10. 2012 . Available at http://www.skm.dk/public/dokumenter/presse/FL13/1.pdf)

Smed, S & Robertson; A. Are taxes on fatty foods having their desired effects on health? BMJ 2012;345:e6885 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e6885 (Published 16 October 2012)

Competing interests: No competing interests

04 June 2013
Bent Egberg Mikkelsen
Professor, Research coordinator
Aalborg University, AAU-MENU
AC Meyersvænge 14, DK 2450 Copenhagen Sydhavn