Fattening Up the Coffers

By Fenster, Michael | USA TODAY, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Fattening Up the Coffers


Fenster, Michael, USA TODAY


DENMARK. HOME TO lovers of all things butter and bacon, has enacted a "fat tax" and, according to Ole Linnet Juul, a food director at Denmark's Confederation of Industries, it may be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Hungary passed a similarly labeled--but substantially broader--law in July, which included a tax on all products containing "too much" salt, sugar, or tat, as well as increasing the levy on liquor ,'rod soil drinks by 10%. The Hungarian version also did not affect food served in restaurants, including fast food establishments, nor traditional Hungarian fare--like deep fried goose fatii.

The Danish tax is a levy on the amount of saturated fat in a food item. It is 16 Danish kroner per kilogram (about $6.27 per pound) and is applied to foods that have a saturated fat content exceeding 2.3%. However; that calculation is derived via a very complex formula that takes into account the fat used to produce the item, not simply the final fat content. It affects not only food produced within Denmark. but retailers who sell food in other European Union countries, importers from various sectors of the EU, and those from different nations selling within Denmark, a country that already has a ban on trans fats and sin taxes on tobacco, alcohol, soft drinks, and sweets beyond the minimum levels established by the European Union.

The goal of this tax is not to curb obesity. Denmark's obesity rate of 13.4% is below the European average of 15.5% and well below the current American estimate of approximately 34%. Ostensibly. it is to increase the life expectancy of the Danes, currently at 78.6 years--the hypothesis being that a higher average life expectancy translates into a healthier population.

The Danish average life expectancy is lower than many of its European neighbors. When the concept of the tax was proposed in 2009, then Health Minister Jakob Axel Nielsen remarked that "higher lees on sugar, fat, and tobacco is an important step on the way toward a higher average life expectancy in Denmark."

The conventional wisdom holds that consuming higher levels of saturated fat leads to weight gain. and thus is a primary mechanism by which increased dietary saturated fat leads to an increased risk of morbidity. In examining obesity data from around the globe, it turns out Denmark is the eighth leanest country. However, among those same countries, it comes in a disappointing 21st in terms of relative life expectancy.

Thus, while slimmer, the average Dane can expect less time to reconsider indulging in that plate of pommes frites than their chubbier European brethren. This is the reason that the fat tax cannot be justified to improve average life expectancy in Denmark, as the relative correlation between obesity and average life expectancy does not seem to hold true.

So much is made of the rising levels of worldwide obesity that it seems somewhere along the way we have failed to question exactly what our measure of obesity actually measures-an important concept if policy and program is based upon it. The current measure of obesity is body mass index (BMI). It is weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters. It originally was developed in 1832 as a means to define the "normal" man by the Belgium polymath, Lambert Aldophe Jacques Quetelet. and was one of many observations and statistical derivations he tinkered with in his pursuit of social sciences.

Interest in all index of relative body weight was spurred after World War II when insurance companies noted apparent excess mortality of their more corpulent policyholders. Ancel Keys published a comparison of various height-weight formulas in 1972 and found the Quetelet Index correlated best among height-weight formulas compared to more direct measures of the body's fat percentage. He renamed it the body-mass index. This was adopted by the World Health Organization and later by the National Institutes of Health. …

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