Could a ‘sin tax’ on meat encourage consumers to make healthier choices?

A new report from Oxford University is calling on the UK Government to introduce a health tax on red and processed meat to prevent deaths and save money on healthcare.

7 November 2018
image credit: Getty Images

Processed meat like bacon, sausages and jerky need to be more than double the current price to account for health costs associated with their consumption. That’s the verdict of new research from Oxford University, which has examined the impact of introducing a ‘sin tax’ on red and processed meat.

The health tax could spur changes in people’s meat consumption, prevent more than 220,000 deaths globally and save more than £30bn in healthcare costs every year, found the study. Drilling down into the UK impact, it could mean an estimated 5,900 fewer deaths and savings of £735m in healthcare costs.

In high income countries, the research found red meat would generally need to be 20% more expensive to counteract the health implications of eating it. In particular, putting a tax of 79% on sausages and bacon and 14% on steaks in the UK would prevent thousands of deaths, according to the report.

The World Health Organisation declared processed beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic in 2015 and suggested unprocessed meats like steaks and chops are probably carcinogenic. Add to that, beef, lamb and pork have been linked to increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, yet people in most high and middle-income nations eat more red meat than recommended.

Looking to the future, the research estimated that in 2020 there will be 2.4m deaths globally that will be attributable to red and processed meat consumption, as well as £216bn in costs related to healthcare.

But rather than prohibiting meat consumption, the research set out to find the appropriate tax levels needed to reflect the healthcare costs incurred when people eat red meat.

For the greater good?

Like taxes on other products that can harm health including alcohol, tobacco and sugar, a tax on red and processed meat could encourage consumers to make healthier choices, said Dr Marco Springmann, who led the research and is from the university’s Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.

The research suggests that if the health taxes were introduced, consumption of processed meat would decline by about two portions per week in high-income countries and by 16% globally. Currently, people in rich nations eat on average one portion of red meat a day.

Meanwhile, unprocessed red meat consumption would remain steady due to consumers substituting it for processed meat.

 “I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers. A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems,” said Dr Springmann.

“Nobody wants governments to tell people what they can and can’t eat. However, our findings make it clear that the consumption of red and processed meat has a cost, not just to people’s health and to the planet, but also to the healthcare systems and the economy.”

The introduction of a sugar tax on soft drinks in in April in the UK suggests there is some government appetite to tax unhealthy foods.

The Oxford University research used a standard economic approach called optimal taxation to calculate the tax rates, meaning it looked at the healthcare costs incurred by eating one additional portion of red meat to set the tax rate, rather than the total healthcare costs incurred by all the red meat people eat.

This method of taxing would recoup 70% of the £265bn spent around the world tackling illness caused by red meat eating.

Public backlash overestimated

Reduced consumption of processed meat was also identified by the study as having positive knock-on effects on climate change and body weight.

The researchers found it would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by over one hundred million tonnes, mainly due to lower beef consumption, and it would also reduce levels of obesity by driving consumers to lower-calorie substitutions.

Other studies from this year, published in the journals Science and Nature, showed that adopting a vegan diet was the single biggest way for people to reduce their environmental impact and avoid dangerous climate change.

Just last year, a ‘sin tax’ on meat was predicted to be introduced in the next five to 10 years, a report from the investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) Initiative found. It suggested levies of 40% on beef, 20% on dairy products and 8.5% on chicken, would save half a million lives a year.

Back in 2015, consumer research found that a sin tax was far less unpalatable to the public when the health and climate implications of eating meat were explained, according to international affairs thinktank Chatham House and Glasgow University.

“Our research found a general belief across cultures and continents that it is the role of government to spearhead efforts to address unsustainable consumption of meat. Governments overestimate the risk of public backlash and their inaction signals to the public that the issue is unimportant or undeserving of concern,” it said.

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