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Fat tax

A fat tax is a surcharge applied to certain kinds of high-fat and high-energy foods whose consumption is most likely to contribute to excessive weight gain. The hope is to reduce the increasing levels of obesity — known to cause or exacerbate health problems like heart disease, cancer and diabetes — and encourage people instead to eat healthy foods that are low in salt, sugar, and saturated fats.

Some US cities and states levy taxes on soft drinks and junk food but the idea hasn’t yet spread to Europe. The term was in the news in the UK in July 2007 following publication in the Journal of Epidemiology of a report by Dr Mike Rayner and fellow researchers at Oxford University. At the moment, nearly all foodstuffs are untaxed in the UK; the researchers suggest that applying sales tax at the usual rate of 17.5% to non-essential foods like cakes, biscuits and puddings would potentially save up to 3,200 lives a year. A similar proposal was put forward by Dr Tom Marshall in the British Medical Journal in 2000; a fat tax was rejected by the British government in 2004 as being a product of a nanny state.

The term fat tax has been independently invented several times. The earliest I know of was at the World Food Conference in 1973, during which delegates were encouraged to weigh themselves and pay a graduated fat tax to charity if they were overweight. The first example I can find in the sense of a tax on foodstuffs appeared in a letter by a reader in the Valley Independent of Monessen, Pennsylvania, in July 1987.

Dr Rayner said: “Given the high incidence of cardiovascular disease and the acknowledged contributory role of dietary salt and fat a well-designed and carefully targeted fat tax could be a useful tool for reducing the burden of food-related disease.”

Evening Standard, 12 Jul 2007

Critics say a “fat tax” would hit the poor hardest because they spend 30 per cent of their income on food, twice the proportion spent by richer households.

New Scientist, 21 Jul 2007

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Aug. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 25 August 2007.