Danish 'Fat Tax' Theoretically Improves Health; We Doubt It

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In 2011 the Danish government, concerned about the population's obesity rate and heart disease, imposed a tax on saturated fats and the foods that contain them such as butter, whole fat milk and red meats. But the tax imposed some unexpected burdens on businesses, and was revoked by the beginning of 2013.

Now, on the basis of a recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (EJCN), the Danes are considering re-imposing that tax.

Perhaps the basis of concern that led to the tax should be reconsidered. As of 2005-2006, according to the World Health Organization, fewer than 15 percent of Danes were obese (i.e., had a BMI >30); and the rate of cardiovascular disease (the disease most closely linked to saturated fat intake) was low compared to international rates.

In spite of the above, the Danes were pro-active in attempting to change the food-purchasing behavior of the population, and they succeeded in doing so to some extent. Based on scanner data of food purchases, the EJCN report found that when the fat tax was in place, there was a 4 percent reduction in the purchase of saturated fat-containing food items, as well as an increase in the purchase of fruits and vegetables (also in the purchase of salty foods).

Aside from the issue of which foods consumers bought in Denmark, it was also the case that people could, and did, simply cross the border to Germany to purchase less expensive items there. This, of course, could not be captured by Danish scanner data.

Further, the data indicating that there were health benefits accruing to Danes because of the tax weren't directly based on population statistics. The benefits were derived by computer modelling — and such models' value depends on the validity of the assumptions underlying them. One would certainly not expect that a tax lasting little more than one year might have a real effect on a population's health.

So, while it makes a great headline to say that the fat tax improved the Danes' health, the story doesn't support that conclusion. It would be wise to take such stories with more than a grain of salt (taxed or not). We can only hope that the Danish government will take a more reasoned approach to changing the population's food habits, and not be persuaded to reintroduce a tax that has not been shown with any degree of credibility to be effective.