Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce a ‘fat tax’ on foods high in saturated fats. What if Malta follows suit?
It makes for sobering reading: almost one in every four Maltese is obese.
People in low-income families much more likely to be overweight
Last year, we spent more money on fatty foodstuffs and less on meat, fish and vegetables. We exercise less than anyone elsein the EU, and local men are the fattest in Europe.
If there is any consolation to be had, it is that the entire developed world is in the throes of an obesity crisis. Last month, an International Red Cross report revealed that obese people now outnumber the starving.
Given governments’ lack of success in getting citizens to adhere to the basic tenets of healthy living – exercise more, eat better, eat less – some are now trying to fix the situation using a well-worn policy tool: taxation.
Denmark set the ball rolling when it introduced a fat tax, but research into junk food taxes is underway in several other countries.
Hungary has introduced a flat rate on foods high in salt, sugar and fat, and Finland and Romania have said they want to adopt a Danish-style law in the near future.
Denmark’s ‘fat tax’ penalises foods with saturated fat contents above 2.3 per cent. A tax isthen levied on such foods, using a baseline rate of €2.15 per kilo of saturated fat.
Transposing Denmark’s tax onto local foods is fairly tricky, as the saturated fat content of any food varies depending on the recipe and cooking method used. But as calculations for a Danish-style ‘fat tax’ on Maltese foods reveal (see table), tariffs are unlikely to deter corpulent eating habits.
A ricotta pastizz would increase in price by 1.5c, while a Big Mac would become 2.1c more expensive. A Burger King Whopper with cheese would rise in price by just over 3c – almost as much as a portion of timpana, which would face a 3.4c increase. The foods worst hit by such a fat tax would be dairy products such as butter, cream and full-fat milk.
Whether or not such price hikes would serve as a nutritional deterrent remains a moot point.
Nutrition and exercise specialist Johanna Calleja, who calculated the saturated fat contents of the various foods for The Sunday Times, felt that while introducing a ‘fat tax’ might encourage people to opt for foods lower in saturated fat, it was not going to solve Malta’s obesity problem.
Comparing a fat tax to taxes levied on cigarettes, Ms Calleja said money is secondary – it isthe will to stop that is the main motivator.
What Malta needed, she said, were “lifestyle modification programmes aimed at helping people to increase their physical activity levels and educating them to adopt a healthy, balanced diet.”
The revenue from such a fattax, she added, could be used to fund such lifestyle modification initiatives.
Economist Gordon Cordina said the main intention of a fat tax would be to induce consumers to eat healthier. Given that healthy foods are generally more expensive than fatty ones, a successful fat tax “would either require a very hefty increase in fatty food products [prices], or the utilisation of the revenues from the fat tax to subsidise healthier food products,” he continued.
Academic research into various foods’ price elasticity – the extent to which a food’s consumption is affected by changes in price – seems to bear out Dr Cordina’s suggestions.
Research at the University ofIllinois has shown that subsidising healthy foods tends to have a more positive effect than taxing unhealthy ones.
Further research at the University of Reading found that while subsidising fruit and vegetables by around 15 per cent improved their consumption significantly, taxing fatty foods did not reduce their consumption.
The research report concluded that “to be effective, a fat tax would need to be combined with other interventions that are designed to reduce consumption”.
Philip Fenech, spokesman for the Malta Chamber for Small and Medium Size Enterprises – GRTU, said that while the principle behind the tax was fair, it made little sense to tax foods which were often eaten after a night out, rather than educate people to eat more healthily.
“Wouldn’t it be more positive to incentivise healthy foods instead?” he asked.
Dr Cordina also warned that it would probably be Malta’s poorest who would be worst impacted if such a tax were introduced.
Research in several Western countries has revealed a strong correlation between povertyand obesity, with people in low-income families muchmore likely to be overweight or obese than those from wealthier backgrounds.
There is little reason to suppose Maltese society is any different.
“It is possibly people in the lower income strata who consume more fatty foods as a proportion of their total income,” said Dr Cordina.
If a fat tax were introduced, there would have to be “some element of compensation towards this category” to guard against any negative repercussions.
Chef and restaurateur David Darmanin questioned the assumptions behind taxing foodstuffs high in saturated fats.
“Taxing cigarettes, which are universally harmful, is one thing. Taxing butter, which can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, is another.”
Setting aside fast foods, “there is no such thing as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ food,” Mr Darmanin said, “and it is condescending and unfair of the government to say so.”
A fat tax, he added, would unfairly penalise restaurants which used copious amountsof butter, when people only ateat such restaurants on special occasions.
When contacted, a spokesman from the Health Ministry acknowledged that Malta had an obesity problem, and said that an information campaign specificallytargeting obesity was in the process of being launched. He also cited the government’s new online portal for health living at www.ehealth.gov.mt, as an example of ways in which the public could access expert health and nutritional advice.
Questions to the Finance Ministry concerning the possibility of such a fat tax being introduced were not answered by the time of going to print.
|Food||Saturated fat %||Fat tax levied (per portion)|
|Bag of chips||5.8%||1.3c|
|Plate of spaghetti carbonara||6.5%||2.6c|
|Pack of butter (454gr)||51%||49c|
Note: Calculations are approximate, and will vary depending on the recipe used.
Source: Johanna Calleja
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