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Could targeted food taxes improve health?

Abstract

Objective: To examine the effects on nutrition, health and expenditure of extending value added tax (VAT) to a wider range of foods in the UK.

Method: A model based on consumption data and elasticity values was constructed to predict the effects of extending VAT to certain categories of food. The resulting changes in demand, expenditure, nutrition and health were estimated. Three different tax regimens were examined: (1) taxing the principal sources of dietary saturated fat; (2) taxing foods defined as unhealthy by the SSCg3d nutrient scoring system; and (3) taxing foods in order to obtain the best health outcome.

Data: Consumption patterns and elasticity data were taken from the National Food Survey of Great Britain. The health effects of changing salt and fat intake were from previous meta-analyses.

Results: (1) Taxing only the principal sources of dietary saturated fat is unlikely to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease because the reduction in saturated fat is offset by a rise in salt consumption. (2) Taxing unhealthy foods, defined by SSCg3d score, might avert around 2300 deaths per annum, primarily by reducing salt intake. (3) Taxing a wider range of foods could avert up to 3200 cardiovascular deaths in the UK per annum (a 1.7% reduction).

Conclusions: Taxing foodstuffs can have unpredictable health effects if cross-elasticities of demand are ignored. A carefully targeted fat tax could produce modest but meaningful changes in food consumption and a reduction in cardiovascular disease.

  • IHD, ischaemic heart disease
  • VAT, value added tax

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