FoodPolitik: The Danish tax

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Despite its small stature, Denmark has greatly influenced American breakfasts with its deliciously buttery and flaky Danishes. Unfortunately, its latest potential export isn’t so savory: the world’s first “fat tax.”

This fall, the Danish government instituted a tax on saturated fat content. Public-health activists were euphoric. But for the average consumer, prospects are slim that this tax will improve anyone’s health. In fact, all it will do is fatten the government.

A surprising number of foods that are considered “good for you” appear to fall under the Danish tax’s requirement of being at least 2.3 percent saturated fat, such as almonds, salmon, eggs and dark chocolate.

Salmon is full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Dark chocolate is linked to lower blood pressure. Harvard calls eggs “a good source of nutrients.” And do the Danish public-health nuts think almonds cause heart problems?

Ironically, the public-health crusade against saturated fat could cause a reduction in the consumption of these products.

The Danish tax is the result of the public-health world’s constant search for demons. And it’s not limited to one nutrient.

The French parliament just passed a tax on soda. It’s an idea that has made the rounds in city halls and state legislatures from Philadelphia to Sacramento. No doubt countless proposals will hit more state legislative hoppers come January.

But will these taxes reduce obesity, as advertised? New research should give us pause.

A Duke-National University of Singapore study released last December determined that a hefty 20 percent tax on pop would reduce our energy intake by a whopping 7 calories a day. The research found, as an example, that people simply switch from the taxed soft drinks to other, untaxed beverages with just as many calories.

In fact, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University determined that soda would require a 1,200 percent tax in order to achieve a measurable decrease in weight. Even the anti-soda activists are talking about a tax far below this — which really goes to show that it’s not about slimming people down; it’s about raising money.

In fact, much of the common “wisdom” touted by obesity warriors who offer solution-by-government relies on faulty premises.

Consider the usual talking points: Junk food is too cheap and there are too many restaurants.

A new study by Middle Tennessee State University economics professor Charles Baum and Lehigh University’s Shin-Yi Chou examined a multitude of factors that affect weight to see what relative role they played in the rise in obesity rates. They discovered no individual factor contributed significantly to the national weight gain. The biggest factor — fewer people smoking — only influenced about 2 percent of the rise in obesity. Other factors, like less strenuous jobs, explained less than 1 percent. Food prices and restaurants had similarly minuscule effects.

That’s because obesity is the result of a lifestyle, not a single food or nutrient. Weight gain (or loss) comes down to whether we’re burning off as many calories as we’re taking in through food and drink. We can change our lifestyle, but taxes can’t change it despite us.

As for specific nutrients, there’s a lot we don’t know. Experts created a public scare about fat in the 1980s, and yet the obesity rate promptly went up. Before that, eggs were put on the health blacklist due to cholesterol. Now, eggs are considered a health food and carbs are on the hit list.

The diet industry and daytime TV revolve around finding new “bad” foods and “super” foods. But the tax code shouldn’t be used as a weapon to punish people for eating and drinking certain foods that are on flavor-of-the-week or pseudo-scientific blacklists.

It certainly seems a bit of an exercise in self-loathing to see the Danes tax Danishes. Let’s make sure our legislators don’t get infected by this bug, or they’ll quickly move from soda to hot dogs and apple pie.

Rick Berman is the president of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.