Denmark’s fat tax disaster – the proof of the pudding

The negative consequences of putting ‘sin taxes’ on products when demand is inelastic are well known. Almost invariably, they hurt the poor more than the rich. They encourage black market activity and cross-border shopping. They lead to compensatory purchasing and brand switching. Although it is politically expedient to portray them as ‘nudges’ designed to improve society or compensate for negative externalities, they typically act as stealth taxes while doing little to reduce harmful consumption.

‘Public health’ campaigners tend to sweep these drawbacks under the carpet. From their narrow perspective, anything that might improve health is worth doing. Since higher prices can usually be expected to reduce consumption, they have used a variety of computer models to ‘prove’ that taxing sugar, salt and fat will reduce obesity. Unintended consequences are wished away or dismissed as mere ‘industry arguments’.

Occasionally, however, wishful thinking must come face-to-face with reality. Denmark’s tax on saturated fat was hailed as a world-leading public health policy when it was introduced in October 2011, but was abandoned as an economic and political disaster fifteen months later. Its ignominious demise is discussed in a new IEA report – The Proof of the Pudding: Denmark’s fat tax fiasco – which offers important lessons for politicians in the UK and elsewhere who are under pressure to levy ‘health-related’ taxes on fat, sugar, ‘junk food’ and fizzy drinks.

The economic effects of the fat tax in Denmark were uniformly negative. At least ten per cent of fat tax revenues were swallowed up in administrative costs and it was estimated to have cost 1,300 Danish jobs. The fat tax did, however, raise more money than expected, but this only goes to show that it reduced the amount of high-calorie food sold by less than was anticipated. Opinion polls showed that 80 per cent of Danes did not change their shopping habits at all as a result of the tax. The impact on the nation’s waistline is therefore likely to have been approximately zero. The main effect on shopping habits was to push people over the border to Germany and Sweden where prices were lower.

Unsurprisingly, a regressive tax on food during a recession was not popular with the Danish public. By October 2012, 70 per cent of Danes considered the tax to be ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ and newspapers routinely described it as ‘infamous’, ‘maligned’ and ‘hated’. Mette Gjerskov, the minister for food, agriculture and fisheries admitted that ‘The fat tax is one of the most criticised policies we have had in a long time.’ Ultimately, Danish politicians weighed the negligible health benefits against the demonstrable social and economic costs and swiftly abandoned it. Few mourn its passing.

Despite the unambiguous results of this natural experiment, public health campaigners in the UK continue to lobby for similar policies. Just four days after the Danes announced the abolition of the fat tax, the National Heart Forum called on the government to introduce a tax on foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. Two months later, a coalition of 61 organisations demanded a 20p per litre tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (or – as they call them – ‘mini-health timebombs’). Most recently, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges called for a 20 per cent tax on the same soft drinks. The Academy sheepishly mentioned that Denmark had experimented with ‘a slightly broader plan’, but did not acknowledge that the experiment had ended, let alone explain why.

The ‘evidence-based policy’ of these groups takes no account of what actually happens when their policies are tested in the real world. Concerns about job losses and the cost of living seem to be of no interest to them. Perhaps this is because they do not have to stand for re-election. For politicians, however, Denmark’s fat tax fiasco is a valuable reminder of how economically inefficient, regressive and unpopular such policies are. Denmark has since announced that it will abolish its hated fizzy drinks tax and is cutting beer duty for the same reason it dropped the fat tax – to ‘promote growth and employment’. Politicians should take heed of this real world evidence rather than listen to single issue campaigners and their optimistic computer models.

The Proof of the Pudding: Denmark’s fat tax fiasco can be downloaded here.

Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".

6 thoughts on “Denmark’s fat tax disaster – the proof of the pudding”

  1. Posted 26/05/2013 at 21:25 | Permalink

    You know something is wrong when governments are using tax to influence buying habits.

    I always thought taxes were there to raise money for the poor, the needy and to fund legitimate roles that government performs?

    How naive I must be…

  2. Posted 28/05/2013 at 00:48 | Permalink

    What I find disturbing about this report is the attitude displayed by the public health industry in the face of abject failure. The activists, politicised medics, PR professionals, journalists and social scientists employed in this industry seem incapable of recognising the existence of public opinion except in the sense that it is a useful tool if it can be made to appear by whatever means to align with their agenda. They regard people as pawns to be fought over by the free market forces that they despise and the “progressive” forces that they say they represent. They treat people with contempt whilst claiming to have their interests at heart. For decades they have been allowed to pursue their agenda at considerable expense to the public, without benefits to anyone and with negative consequences for many. I would have thought that politicians would have got the message by now but it seems that this is not the case because illiberal, undemocratic public health campaigns continue to make headlines in the mainstream media and to feature strongly as part of the wider political agenda. If obvious lack of success has not derailed the public health gravy train I am not sure what might.

  3. Posted 28/05/2013 at 10:20 | Permalink

    The most important rhetorical trick of these groups is the distinction between ‘the industry’ (bad) and their consumers (good). This is how they manage to rebrand their elitist paternalism as a courageous struggle against ‘powerful interests’. It’s not as if people wanted to eat bacon, no no no no no, it’s just that supermarkets want to make profits. Shame on them! This rhetoric is pathetic, but widespread, and not limited to the health lobby. Environmentalists and nimbys do the same (air travel only serves the airline industry / development only serves the developers).

  4. Posted 28/02/2014 at 10:15 | Permalink

    You’re headline was stolen from my good friend Ross McCormack. I expect this to be removed/altered and an official apology written to him. Much Thanks

  5. Posted 08/04/2014 at 06:39 | Permalink

    I’m frankly disappointed the way that a civilised country such as Denmark have to lower themselves to taxing the poor – yes, that is what it is behind all the smoke and mirrors – to try and “Improve” their population’s health. Studies done by the London School of Economics show that the only positive thing with this legislation is giving more money to the government to spend; it actually wouldn’t reduce consummation rates of junk food within the country. I hope that this flaw in the system will be fixed soon.

  6. Posted 03/01/2015 at 01:50 | Permalink

    I am doing a research paper on this “fat” tax for my political science class and your article definitely helped me see different viewpoints about this. I didn’t know Denmark had considered such tax. It is my belief that this could work if done the right way. I am not sure what the right way is, but the way they are doing it now is not it. Also, there is a comprehensive article on Time talking about the same thing.


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