Health-Motivated Taxes On Meat – A Necessity For A Healthier Society?
Many people, even staunch omnivores, are aware that consumption of meat comes with consequences to human well-being. The health impact and the carcinogenic classification of red and processed meat raise the question of whether the consumption of these foods should be regulated similarly to other carcinogens and foods of public health concern, such as tobacco and sugary drinks.
Driven by the recent announcement regarding an association between the consumption of red and processed meat and an increased mortality from chronic diseases, scientists from the U.K., U.S., and Australia joined forces to generate economically feasible tax levels, to account for the health costs arising from consumption of these foods.
To do this, the researchers provide estimates on the health costs to society, and optimal tax levels for red and processed meat for all major world regions. Moreover, the impact that health-motivated taxation could have on food consumption and mortality from diet-related diseases was also estimated. Their research methodology included five main steps:
- Health effects associated with the current and projected consumption levels of red and processed meat were estimated.
- Associated health costs were estimated.
- That calculation was repeated for a scenario in which red and processed meat consumption increased by a marginal value ( i.e. it was increased by one additional serving per day in each region).
- Marginal health costs of red and processed meat consumption were calculated by subtracting the cost estimates of the two scenarios.
- The marginal health costs per marginal change in consumption were imposed onto the initial market prices of red and processed meat in each region. The impact of those price changes was then calculated on consumption levels, health impacts, and health costs.
The calculations revealed that for the year 2020, the health-related costs to society attributable to red and processed meat consumption could amount to USD $285 billion. Three quarters of this sum would be due to processed meat consumption, and more than two-thirds would (69%) fall on high-income countries due to higher healthcare-related expenditure. Under optimal taxation, prices for processed meat would increase by 25% on average; ranging from 1% in low-income countries to 111% in high-income countries. Meanwhile, the prices for red meat would increase by 4% on average; ranging from less than 1% in low-income countries to 21% in high income countries.
As a result of the imposed taxes, the consumption of processed meat could decrease by 16% on average, ranging from 1% to 25%. Whereas, red meat consumption would remain stable, substituting for the reduced consumption of processed meat. Other changes observed in this case study include a 5% increase in poultry consumption and smaller increases of 0.4% for milk and eggs, and a small decrease of 0.4% for vegetable oils.
Here, the researchers highlight a limitation of their study: the estimates would change depending on the food groups that would compensate for the reductions in processed meat consumption. Replacement with legumes, fruits and vegetables, or whole grains, for example, could lead to additional health benefits without significantly reducing environmental emissions.
In the model, the number of deaths attributable to red and processed meat consumption decreased by 222,000 (9%). Following the reduced health burden, the healthcare-related costs associated with red and processed meat consumption were reduced by USD $41 billion. In comparison, tax revenues amounted to USD $172 billion.
Although the estimated changes in consumption are substantial on a population level, absolute levels of red and processed meat consumption are still predicted to remain higher than currently recommended by the World Cancer Research Institute. Therefore, the scientists recommend that health-motivated taxation would be considered as one of a range of measures required for modern diets to reach healthy and sustainable patterns.
The study suggests that adding the social health cost of red and processed meat consumption to the market prices of red and processed meat could lead to significant health and environmental benefits. An increasing number of discussions are occurring on the topics of environmental and health-driven taxation of animal products. Animal advocates will surely be interested in how we can optimally combine such schemes in order to efficiently benefit human and non-human animals alike.