Taxing ourselves thin - the way forward?

  • Deborah Condon

By Deborah Condon and Niall Hunter

Health Minister James Reilly has taken an initiative on Ireland's growing obesity rates by providing a wake-up call for the consumer on how unhealthy some foods and to make people pay more for unhealthy consumption.

With as many as 327,000 Irish children now obese or overweight, many will welcome such initiatives.

But has he gone far enough in the battle against obesity? And do these measures actually work?

Dr Reilly is planning to ask the country's fast food operators to include calorie details on their menus. Recently, the McDonalds fast food chain introduced calorie details on its menus in the UK, but opted not to do so in Ireland.

In response to a recent parliamentary question put to him by Fine Gael TD, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Minister Reilly said that the government's Special Action Group on Obesity had specifically looked at this issue and officials from the Department of Health had ‘met with representatives from the food industry during the summer in this regard'.

"This initiative was first introduced in the US and it has recently been replicated in the UK in a deal between the British government and industry. I now intend writing to fast food operators in Ireland asking that they introduce this calorie posting in their Irish restaurants," Dr Reilly said.

He has also confirmed that the Special Action Group on Obesity is examining a number of other options to tackle this issue, including the introduction of a sugar tax on sugar sweetened drinks.

Responding to this, Ms Mitchell O'Connor described it as 'good news for the fight against obesity'.

However, the  Special Action Group was not considering the introduction of tax on foods high in fat, salt and sugar at this juncture, Minister Reilly said.

Some feel that the Minister should not pull back from imposing such a measure, although its imposition at some stage may well be inevitable, if controversial as far as the food and drink industry is concerned.

One of this country's leading weight loss experts has commended Denmark's decision to become the first country in the world to impose a so-called 'fat tax' on certain foods.

According to Prof Donal O'Shea, the obesity epidemic is ruining so many lives, 'it has to be attacked all-out'. And he predicted that a 'fat tax' was something that would eventually be considered in Ireland.

In an effort to reduce the unhealthy eating habits of its citizens, the Danish government has introduced a tax of around €2.15 per kilogram of saturated fat in a product.

This means the cost of foods high in these fats, such as butter, oil and certain processed foods, will rise. For example, a small pack of butter will increase in price by about 30c. The tax was approved back in March and came into effect at the weekend.

Prof O'Shea, who is consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent's Hospital and St Columcille's Hospital in Loughlinstown, Dublin, described the tax as a 'great idea' and one which he would favour.

"Anything that discourages unhealthy eating is good. In general, encouraging healthy eating is the preferred option rather than discouraging unhealthy eating.

"However, the obesity epidemic is killing or ruining so many lives that it just has to be attacked all out and with the same ferocity that the likes of Burger King peddle the high fat, high salt options to young people," he told

Prof O'Shea feels, however, that taking consumer-related measures against obesity is essentially a step-by-step approach.

"There are other issues first like the tax on sugary drinks," he said.

He noted that shockingly, teenagers in the US today drink more calories than they eat.

"If we can impact on that as a first-line and then follow up with the fat tax, that would begin to address the issue. You really do have to attack the problem at multiple levels on the calorie intake and physical activity front," he pointed out.

Prof O'Shea welcomed Minister Reilly's confirmation that he intends to write to all fast food operators in Ireland to ask them to include calorie details on their menus.

"Calorie posting will probably have to be legislated for, but a voluntary scheme to start with would be great and the public sector must get involved early," he added.

Janis Morrissey, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation, said the Foundation would welcome the Minister's anti-obesity measures. She feels Government action on the obesity epidemic had been lacking in recent years.

"We would welcome the fact that the Minister appears to be looking at different policy options including fiscal measures like a sugar tax, but we await further details of these initiatives."

Ms Morrissey suggested, however, that other consumer options aimed at improving health could also be looked at, beyond raising taxes on certain foodstuffs and highlighting calories on menus.

"This could include, for example, introducing subsidies to bring down the cost the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables, to encourage people to up their consumption. The Government could also look at measure such as reducing VAT on bottled water."

Ms Morrissey said fiscal measures, while important, were part of what should be a multi-pronged approach to tackling obesity and improving people's health in general. This, she said should include education and health promotion measures and measures on effective food-labelling.

Currently, food labelling to highlight nutritional information is carried out on a voluntary basis.

The body representing the food and drinks industries, however, is not impressed by the prospect of taxation measures being used to help improve our health.

While this stance is perhaps not surprising, Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII), says quite apart from the the potential effects such taxation might have on jobs and the economy, it has not been proven that fiscal measures actually work in terms of tackling health and lifestyle issues.

The FDII's Paul Kelly says says international research shows there is no evidence to show that taxes, in particular discriminatory taxes, are an effective approach to tackling complex and lifestyle-related problems.

He said discriminatory taxes can be a blunt instrument and tend to hit low-income people hardest as they spend a larger share of their money on food than other income categories.

Mr Kelly also points out that the manufacture of food and drink products is Ireland's most important indigenous industry, with a turnover approaching €24 billion.

"Almost 230,000 people are reliant on the food and drink sector for employment in all region of the country. Therefore, any move to increase the tax burden on the sector would be most unwelcome."

He said an OECD study had shown that a discriminatory tax on sugar generally incurs a negative impact on a country's economy. He felt such a tax could serve only to increase cross-border shopping.

Reilly urged to stand up to food lobby

Discussions on this topic are now closed.