(CNSNews.com) - A targeted food tax could discourage people from buying unhealthy foods and could save lives, according to researchers in the United Kingdom.
The hope is that people would choose to slim their waistlines instead of their wallets.
But critics say diet is a private matter and the government should stay out of citizens' kitchens.
An Oxford-led team of researchers investigated whether higher taxes on foods that are high in saturated fat and salt could change diet patterns enough to improve the health of the nation. The researchers were intrigued by links between reduction in smoking and cigarette tax hikes.
Britain already has a 17.5 percent tax on foods like ice cream, snacks and drinks.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggested that extending the existing tax to dairy products, fatty meats and desserts could alter the national diet enough to decrease cardiovascular disease deaths by up to 3,200 lives a year.
That would not by itself eliminate dietary-related disease, but the strategy could be useful in conjunction with other efforts, the report said.
The researchers cautioned against oversimplifying the results of the study. The best results, according to the models used, occurred when taxes were raised most on foods with high salt and high saturated fat content.
Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Obesity at the University of North Carolina, said diet-shaping taxation would be a good way to fight obesity.
"One of the quickest ways to make a meaningful impact is through taxation," he said. "It's a very effective way to impact people's behavior. In a country like the U.K. or the U.S., half or two-thirds of the people know what's right for them to do. That doesn't mean they do it. But if you give them an economic incentive, they do it more."
One of the troubles with food taxes is the complexity involved in the tradeoffs of different foods and the resulting total caloric intake.
Popkin said a better way of reducing total intake of calories would be to impose a steep hike in taxes on high-caloric beverages like soft drinks and beer. People who don't want to pay the high costs could drink water instead.
Jack Calfee, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agreed that changing dietary patterns through taxation would be hard because of the complexities of the nutritional makeup in food.
"I think the main reason the study is interesting is how it shows the difficulty in using food taxes to improve health," he said. "As a study of a fat tax, the 3,000 lives [potentially saved] came from salt."
American governments have been discussing food taxes and food requirements for at least a decade. New York City notably banned the use of trans fats in restaurants - the ban goes into effect next year - and the Chicago City Council is considering a similar ban.
In Maine, a tax reform bill that would have updated a 50-year-old list of taxable items included a tax on snack foods. It failed by one vote in May.
Democratic State Rep. Thom Watson, a member of the taxation committee, introduced the idea. Although he said he would like to see a tax on unhealthy foods as a way of improving the health of people in the state, he said the proposed snack tax had primarily sought to raise revenue.
"Your diet doesn't need Snickers bars every day," he told Cybercast News Service. "So there's no reason to facilitate their purchase by making them tax exempt. That was the rationale behind bringing snack foods under the sales tax."
Watson said he defined snack foods according to the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board, a program dedicated to simplifying tax legislation between states by creating a common set of definitions.
Critics of so-called "fat taxes" say the government should be using a carrot instead of a stick. Grace-Marie Turner, president of the free-market Galen Institute, said the government should reward healthy choices instead of punishing bad ones.
"I would much rather see incentives for people to do the right thing - lower health insurance premiums if they keep their weight in a certain range or stop smoking," she said. "Some of those things are actually on the table and I think that's a much more effective and a much less intrusive way of getting to the same goal."
Fred Smith, president of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said taxing food would enable the government to intrude in issues that belong to the private sector. The government should create a simple tax system and let individuals be responsible for what they eat, he added.
Smith compared eating to other risky ventures, such as mountain climbing or parachuting.
"To pull out of life one element - the health effects - is to essentially decide for others what their value is," he said. "You'd be healthier on average if you didn't parachute [or] climb mountains."
But Popkin, the nutrition professor, said obesity is a large enough problem to be a major public health concern.
"Smoking kills; obesity debilitates," he said. "In many ways, obesity is a much worse society problem."
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