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Let’s tax our fat

With the unveiling of the world’s first fat tax in Denmark, Matthew Dixon investigates if it is a possible solution for Australia's obesity problems.

It all comes down to one question.

How far is Australia willing to go to try and solve its problem with obesity and everything that flows from it?

Should we regulate junk food advertising? Put warning labels on the side of chocolate bars in a similar fashion to cigarettes?  Or maybe increase the amount of compulsory physical education in schools.

Denmark  has taken a fresh and, some would say, smart approach.

With the idea of reducing cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes it has introduced the world’s first fat tax which will put a price of 16 kroner ($A3.00) per kilogram on saturated fats in food. These fats are most commonly in animal products like butter, cream, and meat.

Australia’s own obesity problem can only really be described as an epidemic.

Reports from the Australian Bureau of Statistics between 1995 and 2008 show the rate of obesity in the population rose from 18.7 to 24.8 per cent over the 13 year period.

In 2008, it was estimated that the overall cost of obesity to Australia was $58.2 billion.

Last week Greens leader Bob Brown threw his support behind Denmark’s fat tax, suggesting a similar tax should be considered for Australia to reduce obesity rates.

According to Ken Harvey, associate professor at La Trobe University’s School of Public Health, Denmark didn’t just introduce the tax to try and curb obesity.

‘Denmark has a lower life expectancy than Australia and a number of other European countries primarily due to heart disease which excess fat intake contributes to, hence their action,’ he says.

Many in Australia would question if a fat tax is really the fairest option. Essentially any sort of tax on fat would be punishing everyone for the problems of a few but according to Harvey this sort of tax would benefit most people.

‘The majority of Australians (60%) are now overweight or obese which has considerable health consequences, such as more cardiovascular disease, more diabetes, shortened life expectancy and higher health care costs.’

What is needed, according to Harvey, is a wide range of actions that doesn’t simply stop at a tax on saturated fats.

‘A range of measures, including taxes to reduce consumption of unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food are being implemented in many countries together with encouraging exercise, subsidising fresh fruit and vegetables, etc.  A package of measures is required.’

The question is no longer if Australia has a problem but how do we fix it?

While many may have laughed at the idea of a tax on fat, meaning that they might have to go and stock up on some of their tastier foods before such a tax is implemented, it is a legitimate solution to a problem.

What we must not forget though is that it would only be one small dent in what is a pretty large vehicle. As a society we need to encourage as many eating choices as possible and if that means influencing these choices through higher prices then so be it.

Australians have understood the connection between a healthy lifestyle, including diet, and a healthy body for a long time yet we have chosen to not change the way we live. Therefore we are now at a point where we may need the government to influence our buying through a tax.

Putting a tax on saturated fats gives the government more money to spend on initiatives to decrease unhealthy eating and increase exercise. Essentially it is a win-win situation.

So maybe a tax on fat isn’t such a bad idea. Don’t immediately take the approach that any tax is a bad tax because in this case it might just be a huge positive.

Matthew Dixon is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart’s editorial team. His blog is called The Grumpy Mustache and you can follow him on Twitter: @matthewdixon23

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