The checkered record of international fat taxes

The checkered record of international fat taxes

New York City’s control freak Mayor Michael Bloomberg suffered a temporary setback this week in his attempt to pry super-sized sodas out of the cold, obese hands of New Yorkers when a court invalidated the law, which was supposed to take effect yesterday.

As Bloomberg’s signature measure languishes in legal limbo, it risks being consigned to the growing list of initiatives around the world designed to improve eating habits but since discarded by governments under intense public pressure. In countries as varied as Hungary, Denmark, Finland, and France proposals to restrict or tax foodstuffs for the sake of public health have been either floated or implemented, but in almost every case the proposals became highly unpopular once ordinary people experienced the indignity of having to pay more for butter in the midst of an economic downturn.

In Hungary, where a full two-thirds of the population is either overweight or obese, the governmenmt now taxes salt, sugar, and some energy drink ingredients in order to dissuade its population, which has one of the lowest rates of life expectancy anywhere in Europe, from eating quite so much unhealthy food. But, as the Times notes, the tax has become unpopular among many Hungarians. Initially branded a "hamburger tax" that targeted fat in food, the final measure focused on pre-packaged foods, and it is unclear whether it has achieved its stated goal of encouraging Hungarians to eat more healthfully. Reeling from a weak economy, Hungarians are now buying less of all kinds of food. But that, of course, is not quite the kind of progress the government was looking for.

In 2011, Denmark became the world’s first country to tax food items by fat quantity. The measure sailed through the Danish parliament, and the country’s political class was highly supportive of the new tax. Proponents of the law saw it as an excellent way to improve the country’s health statistics, including Denmark’s life expetancy, which lags slightly behind several of its West European neighbors. But once consumers saw how much they were paying for Danish staples like butter and sausage (when in Copenhagen, the røde pølser are the thing to try), public support for the measure evaporated. A year after it was put in place, lawmakers scrapped the measure.

French gourmands revolted last year when money-grubbing legislators proposed taxing palm oil, a key ingredient in Nutella, the much-beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread. Though an Italian product, 26 percent of the world’s Nutella is consumed by the French, whose children spread it on toast like Americans gulp down peanut butter. Known as the  "Nutella amendment," the tax would have quadrupled taxes on products containing palm oil and was passed by the senate before being voted down by a a group of conservative and communist legislators as part of a broader social security bill. 

With countries much more amenable to taxation up in arms over levies on popular but unhealthful foods, the lesson seems to be fairly clear: Pick your battles more wisely, Mr. Mayor!