Denmark’s dropping of “fat tax” criticised by Deakin university researcher

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 20th November 2012

An Australian academic has defended his advocacy of a “fat tax” for Australia, after critcising Denmark for abandoning a similar tax.

According to Dr Gary Sacks, who is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention based at Deakin University, the “fat tax” in Denmark was scrapped for political reasons rather than lack of effectiveness.  Dr Sacks said the Danish announcement was precipitated by negotiations for the 2013 Danish government budget.

Denmark, the first country to have a “fat tax,” ditched it after just one year. The Danish government said it had been increasing prices and putting jobs at risk. The Danish government said that the tax had increased prices of dairy, meat and processed foods, which had resulted in consumers visiting Germany and Sweden to purchase food.

Dr Sacks said that because Denmark’s “fat tax” has not been evaluated for effectiveness, many other governments may see it as a failure, and a warning to avoid a similar tax.

“The hope is that governments will show the political will to continue to investigate and evaluate cost-effective strategies to improve population diets and prevent obesity. These may be in the form of the Danish fat tax or others, such as taxes on soft drinks. Other options may be bans on the marketing of unhealthy foods, or restrictions on serving sizes, such as the limit recently imposed in New York,” Dr Sacks said.

Dr Sacks said that “Big Food” companies may have influenced the Denmark government to drop the tax.

“While we can only speculate on the political influences behind the decision, we do know that powerful multinational food and beverage manufacturers, often referred to as “Big Food”, are strongly against taxes on unhealthy foods. Trade associations representing the food industry have campaigned vociferously to avoid these types of taxes. Given the enormous influence of Big Food, it is reasonable to expect that they had at least some influence over this decision,” Dr Sacks said.

“This echoes the failure of the European parliament to introduce traffic-light labelling on foods, following the successful €1 billion lobbying campaign by Big Food in opposition to the proposed labels.

“The tremendous influence of corporate power on public decision making is a major public health concern. As the high rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer continue to put enormous burden on our society, the public health implications of business decision making – particularly with respect to food environments – needs to be more thoroughly investigated than it currently is,” Dr Sacks added.

A report by Danish National Health and Medicines Authority said the tax was first implemented in October 2011, to combat the high rates of overweight or obese Danish citizens. The Authority had said that 47 per cent were overweight and 13 per cent were obese.

In Australia, the Anti-Obesity Coalition which includes Dr Sack’s organisation at Deakin University, has been a strong advocate of a “fat tax.”

Denmark has ceased the "fat tax" on foods containing high levels of fat and salt.