If the British government imposes a "carefully targeted fat tax" on food, over 3,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease could be prevented every year, UK academics have said.
"The potential changes in nutrition that would result from an extension of VAT to further categories of food are modest," wrote lead author Oliver Mytton in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
"However, given the high incidence of cardiovascular disease and the acknowledged contributory role of dietary salt and fat, inducing even small changes in diet has the potential to produce worthwhile population level changes in its incidence," he added.
An industry trade association instantly dismissed the proposals as "utter nonsense".
Julian Hunt, director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said: "This is utter nonsense. Aside from the fact that the researchers think it is OK to tax perfectly nutritious foods, such as cheese, which are an important part of any healthy diet, such a move would be a regressive tax on the least well off, who already spend more of their disposable income on food and drink.
"In any case, the research doesn't prove whether taxing the foods that consumers love would lead to any changes in their buying habits. It would result only in lighter wallets, not smaller waists," he said.
The new study, from researchers from Nottingham, University of Oxford, and South East Public Health Observatory, assessed economic data on food consumption in the UK and applied a mathematical formula to calculate the likely impact of price rises on demand of a range of complementary foodstuffs.
"Taxation to increase price and reduce consumption has been an important part of reducing tobacco consumption in order to improve health in the UK. Increasing tax on alcohol is also an effective means to reduce consumption," explained the authors.
"However, there are important differences between tobacco, or alcohol, and food."
Indeed, value added tax (VAT), charged at 17.5 per cent in the UK, is already applied to confectionery, ice cream, savoury snacks, and most drinks.
The researchers investigated if extending the VAT in the UK to additional categories of food could offer potential health and dietary benefits.
Three different approaches were used by the researchers: Firstly, application of the tax to dairy products containing high levels of saturated fats, such as whole butter and cheese, baked goods, puddings.
Secondly, application of the tax to foods attracting a healthiness (SSCg3d) score of more than 9 (spinach scores -12, for example, while chocolate digestive biscuits score +29). Thirdly, the range of foods was widened to foodstuffs taxed to cut fat, salt, and sugar intake for maximum health.
Mytton and co-workers' calculations showed that applying VAT to foodstuffs high in saturated fats would increase salt intake instead, and could actually increase deaths from heart disease and stroke. It would also increase weekly household food expenditure by 3.2 per cent
Taxing foods attracting a high SSCg3d score would prevent around 2300 deaths a year and add 4 per cent to weekly food bills, they said.
The third approach - widening the range of foodstuffs for maximum health - would increase the weekly household food expenditure by 4.6 per cent, but could prevent up to 3200 deaths from heart disease and stroke every year, they said.
"Our data should be interpreted cautiously," wrote the researchers. "Firstly, our estimates of the effect of targeted food taxes on the number of deaths are crude and limited to the effects of dietary fat and salt on cardiovascular disease.
"Secondly, the model assumes that all food purchased for consumption at home is eaten: we make no allowance for the proportion of food that is not eaten, but discarded.
"Thirdly, the food categories used in the model contain a wide range of products, and it may not be reasonable to assume that all products within each category will behave in the same way: our experience, from using the model, suggests that better targeting of taxation to smaller more precise food categories produces better results.
"[Finally], our elasticity data are based on the UK population, so making predictions for other countries, particularly with respect to possible cross-price elasticity effects, may be inappropriate," they added.
A similar idea was reported in The Times in February 2004. The newspaper suggested that the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit - the body which advises Tony Blair's government on potential areas for legislation - was giving serious consideration to suggesting that foods such as dairy products, pastries, chocolate, pizzas and burgers should be taxed at a higher rate than other, 'healthier' products.
With obesity levels in the UK fast approaching those of the US, where some observers are already talking of an obesity epidemic, the government was looking at ways to improve the nation's health.
But the government was quick to pour cold water on the suggestion, saying that while several ideas for tackling obesity were being discussed, a fat tax was not one of them - not least because such a system would be all but unworkable.
The FDF again vociferously opposed the suggestion.
Source: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
Volume 61, Pages 689-694, doi: 10.1136/jech.2006.047746 "Could targeted food taxes improve health?"
Authors: O. Mytton, A. Gray, M. Rayner, H. Rutter