The Danish government’s now infamous “fat tax” has caused an international uproar, applauded by public health advocates on the one hand and dismissed on the other as nanny-state social engineering gone berserk.
I see it as one country’s attempt to stave off rising obesity rates, and its associated medical conditions, when other options seem less feasible. But the policies appear confusing. Why Denmark of all places? Why particular foods? Will such taxes really change eating behavior? And aren’t there better ways to halt or reverse rising rates of diet-related chronic disease?
Before getting to these questions, let’s look at what Denmark has done. In 2009, its government announced a major tax overhaul aimed at cushioning the shock of the global economic crisis, promoting renewable energy, protecting the environment, discouraging climate change, and improving health – all while maintaining revenues, of course.
The tax reforms make it more expensive to produce products likely to harm the environment and to consume products potentially harmful to health, specifically tobacco, ice cream, chocolate, candy, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and foods containing saturated fats.
Some of these taxes took effect last July. The current fuss is over the introduction this month of a tax on foods containing at least 2.3 per cent saturated fat, a category that includes margarine, salad and cooking oils, animal fats, and dairy products, but not – thanks to effective lobbying from the dairy industry – fluid milk.