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Fat Tax Lessons for Our Skinny Nation
[ Issue 121 Page 10 ] Wednesday, May 01, 2013, 08:16:03 Jae Young Byon jaebyon@kaist.ac.kr

On November 12, the Danish Tax Ministry’s decision to abolish its fat tax, implemented only the previous year, brought to the world’s attention an interesting concept of imposing surcharges on “unhealthful” foods. The tax was placed on various food items including cheese, butter, and meat, all of which contained saturated fat in excess of 2.3 percent. The decision to get rid of this fat tax was based on how it failed to change the Danish people’s eating habits but caused domestic markets to suffer as many Danes crossed the border into neighboring countries to purchase high-fat goods at lower prices. Despite its failure, this experiment with taxing targeted foods could be a foundation for important legislative changes in Korea.

The fat tax is essentially a tax placed on fattening foods, beverages, or in some cases, individuals. Its purpose is to reduce people’s consumption of highly fattening foods or drinks and consequently reduce obesity and the likelihood of health issues, such as strokes and heart attacks. Increased prices on junk food and sodas will discourage consumers from purchasing these products, while any increased revenue from this taxation can be used for healthcare. Fat tax is not without its opponents, however, and their arguments, coupled with the logistic complications of implementing fat taxes, have prevented fat taxes from truly taking off.

The United States, a nation often ridiculed for its many obese citizens, experiences a 190-billion-U.S.-dollar strain on healthcare as a result of the high obesity rate. Despite the situation, there have been no attempts to implement a fat tax in the U.S. Even the recently suggested soda ban proposed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was crushed a day before its planned implementation. Studies show that a 20% tax on sugary drinks in the U.S. would reduce the country’s obesity levels by 3.5%, but both Bloomberg’s proposal and fat taxation nonetheless receive heavy criticism. Whereas Bloomberg’s ban had a loophole, permitting the sale of sodas through vending machines and at convenience stores, the idea of a fat tax is more fundamentally controversial as it may be seen as an overreach of government power. A number of prominent public figures have questioned the government’s right to “judge” the diets of its citizens, placing taxes on certain foods but not on others. Additionally, a fat tax is arguably regressive in that almost the entire burden of the tax falls on the poor. A study has shown that the financial burden brought on by fat tax for a household with an annual salary of $10,000 is ten times greater than the burden on a household annually earning $200,000.

In Korea’s case, however, a modification to the fat tax could serve the nation well. A 2011 study showed that Koreans on average consume 4,831 milligrams (mg) of sodium every day, a figure that’s more than double the World Health Organization’s recommended intake level of 2000 mg. Excessive sodium intake can lead to health risks such as high blood pressure, and the Food & Drug Administration’s campaign for monthly “No Soup Days” highlights the nation’s need to reduce sodium consumption. A “salt tax” that works much like a fat tax but instead increases the prices of items containing high levels of sodium could help steer Korean society in a healthier direction. Instant noodles, soups, and snacks supply the majority of Korea’s salt intake; raising the prices of these products via taxation could convince its manufacturers to reduce the sodium content, while resulting tax revenues could be used to subsidize production costs of healthier foods. If a fat tax were to be implemented in our country, a healthier Korea could soon be in the making.

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