As part of global governmental strategies to combat obesity, nutrition taxes have been tried and tested in various settings. The World Health Organisation supports governments to use fiscal policy to drive healthier habits which is also in line with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals linked to improved health and nutrition6,7. Initiatives that aim to shift change in population consumption of products deemed as less healthy can be controversial, such as the new HFSS legislation coming into force in the UK in October 2022. Are these types of interventions effective in driving positive change and help populations shift towards healthier choices? We took a little look at what has been done around the world so far and what seems to be working and what interventions have failed and why.
In January 2014, Mexico implemented a tax on sugar sweetened beverages, the aim was to reduce consumption of such drinks to help combat the high levels of diabetes and obesity plaguing the country2. The tax was controversial when it was first proposed; 1 peso per litre which estimated a price hike of approximately 10%. A review after 3 years showed decreased consumption of soft drink consumers (non drinker and high consumption drinkers all decreased), indicating that the tax indeed influenced intake2. Despite the promising results from the tax, Mexico still has one of the highest levels of obesity in the world. Systemic change needs more interventions in order to combat the complexity of obesity in Mexico, but the tax is still seen as a success.
Denmark had a “fat tax” between 2011 and 2013, they were the first country in the world to tax saturated fat. The tax was on products that exceed 2.3g/100g of sat fat in meat, dairy products, edible oils and fats and spreads and margarines6. The tax was incredibly controversial and although it resulted in a 4% reduction in saturated fat, it also increased salt intake implying ‘health related taxes’ can have a knock on effect on consumption of other nutrients that can also be seen as detrimental to health5. The tax was scrapped after heavy criticism of inflating food prices as the tax was passed on to consumers and evidence was too weak to show the overall effect it had had on population health outcomes of diet related diseases. The moral of the story being nutrition taxes should not be considered in silos, and consider potentially negative confounding factors.
In 2011 the Hungarian Government imposed a tax affectionately known as the ‘chips tax’ (tax on pre-packaged food and beverages high in salt, sugar and caffeine)4. The tax was hailed as successful as it resulted in an estimated decrease of 3.4 % consumption of processed foods, and increased unprocessed food consumption by 1.1 %1. The Hungarian junk food tax is interesting as it did not tax one specific macro nutrient rather a classified category of products. The largest benefit was seen in lower income percentiles as they decreased their consumption of the taxed category foods and increased consumption of unprocessed foods4.
The Chilean Government introduced a modification to an existing tax on sugar sweetened beverages, by increasing the tax on industrialised beverages high in sugar from 13% to 18%. The government subsequently decreased the tax for those industrialised beverages deemed low/or no sugar from 13% to 10%3. Post tax results showed Chilean households decreased their percentage of purchases of sugar sweetened beverages high in sugar by 3.4%, whereas the volume of purchases for sugar sweetened beverages lower in sugar increased by 10.7%3. These incremental changes indicate a positive shift in Chilean households, however researchers looking at the region have expressed skepticism of the long term effects the tax will have on non-communicable diseases linked to obesity. Nevertheless, even small changes can create a positive effect, and it creates an awareness which activates consumers to acknowledge the potential problems regular consumption of sugar sweetened drinks can have on overall health.
Although HFSS legislation is not a direct fiscal policy, it is a health related policy that restricts the promotion, placement of product and advertisement of foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat. Retailers that fail to comply with the legislation risk being fined, hence the urgent importance of retailers being able to monitor which products fall into the HFSS category. The review continues of the HFSS landscape of the UK food retail environment as the white paper is being drafted by the government.
- 1. Bíró, A., 2015. Did the junk food tax make the Hungarians eat healthier? Food Policy, 54, pp.107-115
- 2. BMJ.com. 2020. Mexico’s sugary drinks tax has helped cut consumption after just three years | BMJ. [online] [Accessed 1 August 2021].
- 3. Caro, J., Corvalán, C., Reyes, M., Silva, A., Popkin, B. and Taillie, L., 2018. Chile’s 2014 sugar-sweetened beverage tax and changes in prices and purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages: An observational study in an urban environment. PLOS Medicine, 15(7), p.e1002597
- 4. European Commission. 2017. [online] [Accessed 1 August 2021]
- 5. Mytton, O., Clarke, D. and Rayner, M., 2012. Taxing unhealthy food and drinks to improve health. BMJ, 344(may15 2), pp.e2931-e2931
- 6. Smed, S., Scarborough, P., Rayner, M. and Jensen, J., 2016. The effects of the Danish saturated fat tax on food and nutrient intake and modelled health outcomes: an econometric and comparative risk assessment evaluation. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(6), pp.681-686
- 7. WHO. 2021. Nutrition. [online] [Accessed 1 August 2021]
Other articles in this series: