Food and drinks taxes still haven't been proved to be an effective way of combating obesity in Europe. However, the taxes, introduced by many European governments, could be a way forward but they have to be part of a holistic approach, experts say.
While taxes on alcohol and cigarettes have been commonplace for many years, taxes on specific unhealthy foods and drinks aimed at combating obesity have only recently been introduced by some governments.
One example is the Danish levy on saturated fat, which the government abolished one year after its adoption due to an increase in cross-border trade and loss of jobs.
Another example comes from Finland where extra taxes on candies, chocolate, cocoa-based products, ice cream and ice lollies have been in place since 2011. A separate tax on soft drinks was increased and widened to also include other categories of beverages.
In September 2011, Hungary raised a tax on a series of unhealthy products such as certain soft drinks, energy drinks, pre-packed sweetened products, salty snacks and condiments. At the same time, the health minister of Ireland, James Reilly, announced that he was considering introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks.
In France, a tax on all beverages with added sugar or with artificial sweeteners was introduced in 2012.
At a panel debate in Brussels, organised by the European Policy Centre, participants disagreed as to how effective food and drinks taxes are. However they all acknowledged that these taxes alone cannot be the only means to tackle obesity and that a more holistic approach was needed.
Benefiting the health of the poor…
Annalisa Belloni, health policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said food and drinks taxes usually lead to an increase in cross-border trades which governments have to take into consideration before introducing them. However, cross-border trade is a much bigger issue when it comes to alcohol and tobacco, as people have to buy food almost every day.
The benefit of the taxes, however, is that low social and economic status groups will have a greater health benefit from the use of fiscal measures, taxation and subsidies. This is due to the fact that the poor are more responsive to price hikes and have a greater prevalence of chronic diseases and risk factors, Belloni said.
Roberto Bertollini, chief scientist and World Health Organization (WHO) representative to the EU, said that when speaking about taxes, the discussion in Brussels typically ends up at an abstract level instead of focusing on what they mean to the individual, the society and families.
"The cost for the society due to the obesity epidemics is a burden for all of us and this has to be taking into account when talking about taxation and changing behaviour," Bertollini said.
"I think we need to address aggressively three components in food; trans-fat in food, sugar and salt in a way that promotes, not impose, change in nutrition habits," the WHO representative added.
…but obstructing the single market
Mella Frewen, director-general of FoodDrinkEurope, a trade association, said that the industry has shown for many years its commitment to promote healthier lifestyles to combat obesity, citing health campaigns and food labelling and by refraining from advertising of unhealthy food to children.
"We are doing our part as the food industry. We are doing more and we can always do more, but we are absolutely convinced that taxes are not the right tool. In today's economic times, discriminating taxes really is not the right way to address this," Frewen said.
FoodDrinkEurope's director-general said food and drinks taxes destroy the function of the internal market.
She added that the complexity of food taxes and the resulting challenges for businesses, operators and the authorities for example in Denmark led to the government withdrawing the tax because it was too burdensome.
"So we see a lot of problems and complexities in all of this and we think that taxes are simply the wrong tool at the wrong time. We need better diets, we don't need taxes. We need better, healthier lifestyles, we don't need taxes. We don't need to scapegoating the industry. We need a comprehensive approach in changing behaviours," Frewen stated.
Despina Spanou, director for health and consumer affairs at the European Commission, said Brussels would not shy away from facing nutrition and obesity issues. However, she said that the Commission has little say on taxation matters and that it was up to the member states to do what they feel is right.
"But we do not pretend that we don't see what's happening in Europe and we have identified that obesity is a problem and we have a Europeanwide strategy on nutrition adopted in 2007, and it demonstrated our view on how to tackle obesity which is a holistic approach," Spanou said.
In a statement, industry organisation FoodDrinkEurope said:
"The issue of health and nutrition is high on the agenda of the EU food and drink industry and it shall be seen by its operators as a positive opportunity to invest in new markets, generate new productive operations and employment through i.e. reformulation, innovation and diversification. Discriminatory taxes, however, are not the right solution to a complex, multifactoral societal issue such as obesity and other non-communicable diseases, which can only be effectively addressed by a 'whole-of-society'."
Several European countries have recently introduced taxes on certain foods and drinks justifying them on both health and economic grounds.
Taxes have been championed by some as an instrument to tackle rising obesity and as an attractive way to increase government revenue at a time of economic hardship.
Others argue that they are ineffective, drive down consumer demand and reduce companies' competitiveness.