Would you still buy sausages if they cost more than twice as much? What about ham or bacon? 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.
The idea, set out in research from the University of Oxford published on Tuesday, is that a meat tax could both reduce deaths and raise the money needed to cover the health costs of our consumption.
“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 of the University of Oxford told HuffPost.
Governments around the world already use taxes to discourage what are considered harmful behaviors, such as smoking, using single-use plastic bags or drinking sweetened drinks. Could meat be added to the list?
Here we take a look at the reasons for a meat tax, how it would work and whether it could be implemented.
What’s wrong with eating meat?
It depends what type of meat you’re eating. Eating meat does have health benefits, but we’re eating too much of it. And the wrong kind.
When it comes to red meat and processed meat, there is increasing evidence that eating too much of it can have pretty heavy health consequences.
Red meat — which includes beef, lamb and pork — has been labeled by the World Health Organzation as “probably carcinogenic” for humans. Processed meat — for example, hot dogs, ham and sausages — is deemed carcinogenic. In other words, there is “convincing evidence” it causes cancer, according to the WHO.
While statistics are hard to come by for red meats, about 34,000 cancer deaths a year are attributable to diets heavy in processed meats, according to the Global Burden of Disease project. The most common type of cancer associated with these types of meat is colorectal cancer, but it’s also been linked to heart disease, diabetes and strokes.
According to the new study, by 2020 there will be 2.4 million deaths attributable to eating red and processed meats.
Of course, it’s not just about health. Meat has a huge environmental footprint too. Livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions and recent research from the journal Science suggested that the best thing you can do for the planet is to stop eating meat and dairy.
How much would it be?
The researchers analyzed 149 countries to calculate how much extra we should be paying for meat, if we want to pay the true cost. And it’s quite staggering.
To cover the health costs, processed meats should cost 25 percent more on average. In lower income countries, prices would only need to rise by 1 percent, the study says, but in richer countries, it recommends price increases of more than 100 percent. Average prices for red meat would increase by 4 percent.
In the U.S. the taxes would be high, with 163 percent on processed meat and just under 34 percent on red meat.
What could be the outcome?
The research suggests that it could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save $41 billion in health care costs every year. They estimate tax revenues could cover 70 percent of the costs spent by countries on dealing with the health implications of these types of meat.
In terms of environmental impact, Springmann said their analysis found that global taxation of red and processed meats at the level they suggest could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100 megatons, “so that’s comparable to technological mitigation measures that have been looked at.”
Won’t this hit low-income people hardest?
That’s the criticism. Making food more expensive for everyone will obviously have the most negative impact on those with the least to spend. Often processed meats can be the lowest-price option for low-income families looking for cheap sources of protein. And some studies have suggested there is a cost to eating more healthily.
But Springmann counters this by drawing a comparison to soda taxes, “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 other, more healthy alternatives.”
He says the tax needs to be complemented by information campaigns and other initiatives such as cooking classes that show it’s easy and affordable to switch diets. “Most of the time people don’t know what they should consume instead. So it’s very important to show them what are the alternatives.”
Has anyone done it?
Yes. Denmark implemented a tax on saturated fats in 2011, which can be seen as a meat tax in effect, as meat is high in saturated fats. But, after a backlash, it was abolished after a year.
Research published in Nature found that, during its short life, it did encourage healthier eating. The tax resulted in a 4 percent reduction in saturated fat intake and an increase in vegetable consumption. It has a fairly lukewarm conclusion that the tax “made a positive, but minor, contribution to public health in Denmark.”
Springmann said the lesson to be learned from this case study is “that it’s really important to communicate it well.” If people understand what revenues are used for, he says, the tax is viewed more positively. In Springmann’s study, meat tax revenues would be used to cover health costs, but they could equally be used to support farmers and butchers in making a shift away from meat, or to subsidize fruit and vegetables.
What’s the likelihood of it being implemented in the U.S.?
At the moment, low. The closest thing to a meat tax in existence in parts of the U.S. may well be soda taxes. Philadelphia, Seattle and Boulder are among the cities to introduce taxes on sugary drinks. But it’s not a federal policy and has seen very strong pushback from soda companies. During the midterms, $20 million was raised in Washington state alone to support a ballot proposition that would bar cities from passing any new taxes on “grocery items.” Soda companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico contributed 98 percent.
Any meat tax would face extremely strong opposition from farming lobbies. And the current administration is not exactly keen on taxes.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated how much a meat tax could save in health care costs. Research suggests it could save $41 billion in health care costs every year, not $40 billion.
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