Denmark's Fat Tax: Now That's Rich!

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The Danes want to make it harder for their own people to eat fatty foods despite being one of the world's great producers and exporters butter, cheese, and bacon to other countries

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Reuters

The paradox has long been known that the French live several years longer (about 2.5 years) than the Danes but report their health as poorer. In fact in one survey, as Tim Harford pointed out in the Economist last year, 64 percent of Danes called themselves "very satisfied" and only 16 percent of the French. Now, perhaps inspired by these statistics, both governments are acting on the nutrition front:

The Danish government has introduced a new tax based on the fat content of food:

Denmark has imposed a "fat tax" on fatty foods in an effort to convince Danes to eat healthier. The tax is a complex one, in which rates will correspond with the percentage of fat in a product. The value of the tax is about $3.00 for every 2.2 pounds of saturated fat.

For example, a burger will increase in price by about $0.15, and a small package of butter could cost around $0.40 more under the new plan.

The tax was approved by large majority in a parliament in March as a move to help increase the average life expectancy of Danes - which has fallen below the international average of 79 years - by three years over the next 10 years.

This is mixed news for food and health reformers here, creating a precedent but also a specter of a nanny state run wild. And the bureaucratic complexity of measuring and assessing fat means no chemist or accountant will be left behind. But what makes the law truly ironic is Denmark's historic role as producer and exporter of fatty foods to other nations.

Even now, butter and cheese production are major industries in Denmark. Danish bacon production, important enough to warrant a long Wikipedia article, is still admirably organized by cooperatives, and dominates the UK market. (The raising of Danish pigs, however, has been increasingly outsourced to German and Polish farmers.)

The boycott of Danish products in the Middle East in 2006 demonstrated not only outrage over a newspaper's publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed but also the extent of Danish dairy exports to the Middle East.

Meanwhile France, perhaps to keep its lead, has banned ketchup in school and university cafeterias, except once a week with -- what else? -- pommes frites. The ban is part of a broader program for healthier school lunches, but with a dash of cultural chauvinism recalling last decade's attempt here to rename the product "freedom fries." In any case, there's no sign of fat taxes in France, perhaps because the nation's own renowned cheese industry exports have been suffering from high milk prices.

And the United States? Our longevity is a bit less than Denmark's, and the Yale psychologist and obesity expert Kelly Brownell, an early advocate of the fat tax concept, has spoken out in favor of the Danish legislation. But the Danish program in particular is likely to have the unintended effect of dampening the movement for a soda tax here by presenting it as an entering wedge for farther-reaching measures. Besides, the benefits of such taxes are uncertain. There's evidence in the case of the soda tax that consumers shift to other high-calorie beverages. While the Danish program is aimed at cardiovascular health rather than obesity, the American overweight problem can't be fought well with such taxes because too many factors are promoting weight gain. Is enlightened capitalism an alternative? Maybe: Here's what Google feeds its employees.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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