Meat tax could save thousands of lives and slash healthcare costs

Desiree Burns
November 7, 2018

"Optimal" meat taxes in several other countries were significantly higher than in the United Kingdom, according to the research.

But should politicians be telling people what they can and can't eat?

In the United States, the measure resulted in red meat costing 34% more and the price of processed meat soaring by 163%.

The cancer agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies the consumption of red meat, which includes beef, lamb, and pork, as carcinogenic - or having the potential to cause cancer if eaten in processed form. As evidence mounts up about the serious health implications of eating red and processed meats, including increased risk of cancer, researchers are calling for a meat tax.

Meat tax rates high enough to be effective varied from country to country, but in the United Kingdom the "optimal" level would see the cost of red meat rise by 14 per cent and processed meat by 79 per cent, the research indicates.

They calculated that increasing the cost of red meat by 14 per cent, and processed meat by 79 per cent would prevent the deaths of almost 6,000 people each year and save the NHS almost £1 billion annually.

The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, indicated that a health tax could reduce consumption of processed meat such as bacon and sausages by about two portions per week in high-income countries. This would lead to a $41bn saving in annual healthcare costs, the research shows. Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann said the consumption of red and processed meat in the United Kingdom exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries.

While some welcomed the proposal on Twitter, others told HuffPost UK they're unconvinced, raising concerns that a meat tax would penalise the poorest in society and not necessarily lead people towards healthier choices.

Would you still buy sausages if they cost more than twice as much?

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Rob Bailey, a researcher at the Chatham House thinktank and not part of the research team, said: "The recent sugar tax has shown the United Kingdom government's willingness to tax foods when there is a sound rationale for doing so". I would argue that there are strong grounds for taxing meat.

Meat tax levels high enough to be effective varied from country to country.

And eating lots of red meat doesn't just have an impact on your own health. In May, a major analysis of the damage livestock does found that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact. In October, scientists reported that huge reductions in meat eating are essential to avoid unsafe climate change, including a 90% drop in beef consumption in western nations. And as a result, the health taxes we calculated are based on an economically optimal tax that is high in high-income countries and low in low-income countries.

Media captionDr Marco Springmann tells Today eating only one portion of red meat a week could help tackle global warming How could a tax work? Eating meat does have health benefits, but we're eating too much of it. To cover the total healthcare costs, the tax rates would need to be hiked up again to about double the optimal taxation rates.

There is also a growing awareness of the environmental impact of eating red meat because of the high levels of land and water use and carbon emissions associated with its production.

There's already a tax for sugar, tobacco, and alcohol, so why not sausages?

The suggested United Kingdom meat tax rates would have a significant impact on food prices here, but consumers in some other countries would likely be hit even harder.

Globally the benefits of a meat tax included a 16% reduction in processed meat consumption, and the prevention of 222,000 deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. Also, fewer people would become obese as they switched to healthier foods.

In the USA, the tax resulted in red meat costing 34% more and the price of processed meat soaring by 163%.

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