Introduce a “fat tax” (Junior)

The Western World is getting fatter. Obesity and being overweight are the 5th largest cause of death in the world[1]. 44% of diabetes, 23% of coronary heart disease, and 7-41% of some kinds of cancer deaths can be attributed to obesity[2]. One of the factors that contributes to obesity is the amount of energy in the food that is eaten Fats have twice as much energy for the same weight as protein and carbohydrates (9 calories per gram compared to 4)[3].

Could taxes on high fat foods, aiming to discourage their consumption, reduce obesity? Such a tax has been tried in Hungary [4] and Denmark [5], and it has been suggested in other counties.

N.B. This is a junior version of the Debatabase debate ‘This house would implement a fat tax’ for people who are in school. The original version has more explanation, detail, evidence and references.

Being fat causes problems for everyone

Obesity causes huge medical costs - in the USA alone, around 150 billion dollars [6]. This is because obesity is linked to Type 2 Diabetes, cancer, heart problems, strokes, asthma and other medical problems.

Many of these diseases need lifelong treatment following expensive diagnosis, and often emergency treatment.

This not only has human effects, but causes problems for the economy due to being less productive at work and taking lots of medical leave. Due to obesity’s costs (financial and otherwise) to society, it can’t be considered as something that only affects individuals any more [7].


The USA is not a good place to take figures from as its health sector is very expensive and inefficient compared to most other countries [9]. If anything, that is getting worse.

It’s not possible to say if the rising cost of healthcare is due to obesity related disease, as there are numerous other possibilities such as the risk of doctors being sued, an aging population, and spiraling drug costs.

Also, there are other lifestyle choices that can cause problems, for example eating meat can contribute to cancer [10], we should not single out one lifestyle choice that can cause problems over others.

Other taxes try to change behaviour

Taxes that try to change people’s behaviour on things that are not liked have been used since the 16th century, and are commonly applied to alcohol, smoking and gambling.

In the US, when cigarette prices went up 4%, use dropped by 10% [11]. As this worked with tobacco, which creates similar health problems to obesity, this tried and tested strategy can work.

Research has shown that when the price of unhealthy food goes up, people eat less of it [12]. A fat tax would make people healthier.


Tobacco and fatty foods are different. A balanced diet will include many food groups, including fats. Cigarettes, however, have no health benefits whatsoever.

While smoking is harmful at any level, “junk food” in moderation has no resulting health problems [13] and there is no way to only tax people once they are consuming harmful amounts.

Unhealthy food is cheaper

A reason why people eat unhealthy foods is that it’s often cheaper and easier than cooking something with fresh ingredients. Studies have shown that not only is junk food cheaper, its costs are less likely to increase due to inflation [14]. This was confirmed by research in Australia that showed that while healthy food became more expensive, junk food got cheaper [15].

Obesity is more common amongst poorer people. Because junk food is so cheap, it is eaten more. The best way to change this consumption pattern is to tax unhealthy food so that the healthy option is also the cheaper option.


What the tax would do is just make poorer people spend more on food by taxing them more.

Instead of making healthy food more accessible, it would just make all food less accessible – which wouldn’t work. People who currently eat junk food may just continue to eat what they are used to. All that will happen is that people will spend more on food – not change what they eat, and it would be poor people who pay more. 

Free choice

It is the government’s job to provide schools and courts not to tell people what to eat. The government should stop people harming each other. But it’s not the government’s job to tell people what to do to themselves. Consuming fatty food does not harm other so should not be subject to government control.

A fat tax would be like the government trying to prevent us from frivolous spending and getting into debt by being allowed to tax investments it considers to be bad. 


This is a very limited view of government; today everyone agrees that the government should be allowed to tax things that harm us such as alcohol and tobacco. These, like fat, only indirectly harm others.

Attitudes towards fat are changing as the problem becomes much greater. It is now accepted that when people do things that harm others indirectly the government must have a role. The rise in healthcare costs creates just such costs by increasing the cost of the healthcare system as a whole which is either paid for by everyone through taxes or passed on through higher insurance premiums.

Such a tax would not work

A fat tax would only produce a slight change in behaviour. Research by the London School of Economics said that “those on the very poorest diets will continue to eat badly. [16]”

People like fast fatty food because it is quick and tasty. Eating is something we need to do to live – it solves a specific need quickly, and people are happy to pay for it. [17]

Obesity has many causes. It is not something that can be solved with something as simple as a fat tax. Things like healthy food vending machines, more exercise and better education would be more effective in the long run.


Education campaigns, such as Jamie Oliver’s campaign about school dinners to the Change for Life scheme are already being tried. They aren’t working very well [18]. The only thing that really affects behaviour is cost – making unhealthy food expensive and healthy food cheaper.

Costs more to those who can’t afford to pay

A fat tax will be a tax on poor people. It will hit the poorest, those who can least afford to pay it. It is the poorest who buy the cheapest food because they can’t afford otherwise and who are least likely to have the kitchen equipment necessary to prepare healthy meals. Because it is what they know they will simply end up paying more taxes and having less money to spend on anything else. The result will be attempts to save by eating even worse food, or cutting back on some other necessity such as heating. [19]

The impact of rising food prices and concerns that the result would be turning to worse food is what stopped Romania from introducing such a tax in 2010. [20]


A fat tax could be offset by subsidizing the price of healthier foods so that the overall food budget is unaffected. No one will be forcing the poor to pay this tax as the intention is to have them change their eating habits.

The families that would be affected by the tax most are those affected most by obesity related disease. Spending some money now on food would save a lot more later in health care. It will also make them more productive at work, meaning a better economy and hopefully higher wages to help compensate. [21]


[1] World Health Organisation, ‘Obesity and overweight’, March 2011,

[2] Centers for disease control and prevention, ‘Overweight and Obesity: Causes and Consequences,, 16 April 2011,

[3] Buchholz, A. C., Schoeller, D. A., ‘Is a calorie a calorie?’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2004,

[4] Cheney, C., ‘Hungary Introduces 'Fat Tax'’, Spiegel International, 1 September 2011,,1518,783862,00.html

[5] Danish Agriculture & Food Council, ‘Fat tax in Denmark agreed’, June 2011,

[6] Centers for disease control and prevention, ‘Overweight and Obesity: Causes and Consequences,, 16 April 2011,

[7]  Centers for disease control and prevention, ‘Overweight and Obesity: Causes and Consequences,, 16 April 2011,

[8] Los Angeles Times, ‘Should there be a ‘fat tax’?’, 11 April 2011,

[9] Connolly, C., ‘U.S. ‘Not Getting What We Pay For’, Washington Post, 30 November 2008,

[10] Family Health Guide, ‘Red Meat and colon cancer’, Harvard Medical School, 2006,

[11] Centers for disease control and prevention, ‘Steady Increases in Tobacco Taxes Promote Quitting, Discourage Smoking’,, 27 May 2009,

[12]  O'Callaghan, T., ‘Sin taxes promote healthier food choices’, Time, 10 March 2010,

[13] Roberts A., ‘Let Them Eat Cake (Why Junk Food Is OK For Kids, In Moderation)’, 9 May 2011,

[14] Parker-Pope, T., ‘A High Price for Healthy Food’, The New York Times, 12 May 2007,

[15] Burns, C., ‘The rising cost of healthy foods’, ABC News, 15 October 2008,

[16] Tiffin, R., and Saloris, M., ‘A fat tax is a double whammy for the poor – it will do little to prevent obesity in those on lower incomes, and will hurt them financially’, British Politics and Policy at LSE, 2 September 2011,

[17] WebMD, ‘Top 11 Reasons For Fast Food’s Popularity’, CBS News, 3 December 2008,

[18] Clews, M., ‘’Change4Life at risk of failing’ says public health expert’, Marketing Week, 29 April 2009,

[19] World Food Programme, ‘How High Food Prices Affect The World’s Poor’,, 4 September 2012,

[20] Cheney, C., ‘Hungary Introduces 'Fat Tax'’, Spiegel International, 1 September 2011,,1518,783862,00.html

[21] MNT, ‘Obesity Linked To Reduced Productivity At Work’, 9 January 2008,


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