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Denmark’s 'fat tax:' The answer to what ails us?




A new law in Denmark places a tax on foods such as butter and cheese.
A new law in Denmark places a tax on foods such as butter and cheese.
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Denmark is the first country in the world to levy a tax on foods high in saturated fats, including cheeseburgers, pizza, butter, milk and cheese among other fatty items.

The tax charges 16 Danish kroner per kilogram of saturated fat in foods, or about $3 for just over 2 pounds of bad fats consumed.

The Los Angeles Times reports the tax ups the bag of chips by 12 cents, a package of butter by 39 cents and a burger by 40 cents.

Danish officials say the “fat tax” is to increase life expectancy among Danes and is not necessarily aimed at the nation's obesity rate — which hovers around 10 percent and is below the European average. The current life expectancy in Denmark is 78 years, but officials say they hope the tax will increase life expectancy to 81 years over the next decade.

Still, the question remains: Will this tax deter Danes from indulging in fatty foods?

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, the medical director of Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa and the board-certified physician by the American Board of Bariatric Medicine, says he doesn’t think so.

Speaking to KPCC's Larry Mantle Tuesday, Freedoff said the fat tax would have to add at least 50 percent to the price of fatty foods in order to have any dramatic impact on consumption behavior. His opinion is based on findings in a study from the Forum for Health Economics and Policy.

“[Even] with a 10 percent tax, this particular modeling paper suggests that it would have less than a 1 percent reduction in the average person’s dietary fat consumption,” he said.

Denmark has taken the lead among European countries enforcing tough measures on unhealthy foods. Measures include taxing sodas, cigarettes, alcohol, ice cream, chocolate and other sweets by 25 percent. Denmark's fat tax has caught the attention of public health officials around the globe who are weighing the costs and benefits of implementing something similar.

Dr. David Heber, director of UCLA’s Center for Health Nutrition, told Mantle that a simple 'sin tax' would do little to solve the obesity epidemic in the United States — where one third of adults and 17 percent of children are considered obese.

“There’s a misconception that people are fat because they lack will power,” Heber said. “This is a socially contagious disease and we have to do something in the social environment that counteracts what clearly is a profit motivation of selling more sugar and fat.”

“We cannot try to use an economic food sale model to try to continue having these profits at the expense of our health care,” he added.

Freedhoff agreed with Heber, saying that simply taxing products that people might be consuming is evading the larger public health issue.

“We need to understand what is going on in our society,” said Freedoff. “If we want to have legislation that deals with this problem, perhaps legislation that would deal with advertisement to children and zoning laws for fast foods around school would be a better place to start than a tax that is simply going to raise money and will not, in fact, change anything.”

WEIGH IN:

Will this tax deter the Danish from indulging in fatty foods? The tax only applies to saturated fats, but what about sugar or processed foods? Should the U.S. consider imposing such a tax to fight its dangerously high obesity rate?

Guest:

Dr. David Heber, Director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Medical Director, Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa; Board-Certified Physician by the American Board of Bariatric Medicine; Currently in Orlando at the Obesity Society’s annual general conference