Could a Meat Tax Actually Get Americans to Eat Healthier?
A new study from Oxford University makes a good argument.
It's not a secret that it's not good to eat red meat too often. The World Health Organization classifies red meat as “probably carcinogenic” (while processed meats like bacon and sausage are listed as definitely carcinogenic), and yet Americans still exceed recommended consumption of both.
So how to get consumers to eat less? Researchers from Oxford University have proposed creating a “meat tax,” arguing that it could reduce deaths and chronic disease as well as raise more funds to cover the health costs associated with America's diet-related health issues. Their study claims this tax could save the US $40 billion and upwards of 220,000 lives every year.
“If something is classified as carcinogenic, there is rationale for governments to regulate that, minimizing risk exposure to citizens, that’s one of the responsibilities of governments,” Marco Springmann, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, told HuffPost.
Taxes on tobacco, soda, and non-reusable plastic bags have reduced consumption of all three of those things here in America, as well as globally, allowing researchers to establish grounds for a “meat tax” conversation in the future.
This study examined 149 regions across the globe and calculated “economically optimal tax levels” based on current meat consumption, health costs, and mortality rates stemming from related diseases to determine what researchers call the “true cost” of meat for reach region.
For the United States, a 163 percent increase on current taxes was recommended for processed meat (this includes items like hot dogs and deli meats) and an additional 34 percent increase alone for beef, lamb, and pork.
The significant increase in cost could cause problems for lower-income communities that rely on these affordable sources of protein. However, in comparison to current soda taxes, Springmann said, “What people have found with the sugar drinks tax, it would actually help low income-households more because they would have a higher incentive of switching to more healthy alternatives.”
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Many plant-based sources of protein, including beans, whole grains, and various nuts, are also priced much more affordably on grocery shelves and could serve as alternatives alongside healthier meats—with an important caveat.
Springmann believes that the tax alone can’t stop excess meat consumption, as there's also a need for informational campaigns and helpful initiatives to help shoppers find easy and affordable ways to change their diets. It's important to show people possible alternatives in their grocery store, because they often don’t know what to consume otherwise.
Public initiative could also be key to maintaining long-lasting change—Denmark attempted a similar tax on saturated fat in 2011 aimed at meats as well as higher-fat dairy, and while research showed the tax decreased saturated fat consumption and increased vegetable intake among some people, it was abolished after a year because too many consumers simply started buying groceries in Germany or Sweden.
The Oxford study predicts that there are 2.4 million deaths, and $285 billion in healthcare-related costs, related to processed and red meat globally in 2020. While this potential tax could face backlash from powerful agricultural groups in the U.S., Springmann urges Americans to see the bigger picture.
“I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers," Springmann told HuffPost. "A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems.”