IN RICH countries, people’s diets are getting worse and they are getting fatter. Hence the increasing popularity of a “fat tax”, to make unhealthy food cost more. Since Hungary led the charge in 2011 with a “chip tax” on fatty and sugary foods, other countries have followed. Britain is to join a long list next year.
Since the poor both spend a higher proportion of their income on food and tend to eat less healthily, they are the main targets of such taxes. In France, for instance, adult obesity is seen in over 20% of households with monthly incomes under €1,500 ($1,765) compared with less than 10% of those who earn over €3,000.
Punishing consumers, however, is politically painful. So “thin subsidies” have been gaining ground. But data on the impact of such policies are scarce. A recent study on the distributional impacts of fat taxes and thin subsidies from researchers at the universities of Oklahoma and Grenoble suggests policymakers should be wary. It looked at the daily food purchases of women in France over three days. Each day the women were asked to shop from a list of 180 items, with prices adjusted daily as taxes and subsidies were applied.
The study found that the taxes and subsidies actually widened health and fiscal inequalities. Fat taxes meant the women on lower incomes paid disproportionately more for food—their habits changed less. They preferred to buy food they liked rather than what made nutritional sense. Taxing the food they eat most made the poor poorer.
Subsidies encouraged all income groups to buy more fruit and vegetables. But those on higher incomes proved more responsive and so benefited most. Interestingly, richer folk were also more likely to buy the subsidised healthy food and then spend the savings they had accrued on yet more healthy food. But poorer women, if they responded to lower prices, often used the money saved to buy unhealthy items or something else entirely. Once the nutritional price policies were applied, the average share of budget spent on healthy food actually increased for the better-off. The reverse was true for the poor. The long-term benefits of a healthier diet are harder to grasp than the immediate boost of a tasty treat. Taxes and subsidies do not change that. Other strategies are needed as well—notably education.