There is much discussion in Canada and globally as to what approaches can be taken to try to curb the obesity endemic.  Many are of the opinion that regulations must be implemented at the government level in order to be effective.  Denmark has become the first nation to implement a hotly debated tax on saturated fat – should Canada and the rest of the world follow suit?

As of October 1st, Danes now face a ‘fat tax’ when they get to the checkout of the grocery store or pay up at a restaurant. (Of note, Denmark was also the first country in the world to restrict trans fats in 2003.) The fat tax varies depending on the percentage of saturated fat in a particular product, and equates to about $3.00 CDN per kilogram of saturated fat.  The resultant cost increase is about 15 cents CDN on a burger, or $1.20 on a pound of butter.  The overall cost is expected to increase annual food costs by the equivalent of about $190 CDN per family.

As expected, there are numerous criticisms to this approach to try to curb obesity.  First of all, taxing saturated fat does not necessarily mean healthier eating, as it depends on what alternate food is selected by people who make other choices to avoid the tax.  Purchasing highly processed white bread as an alternative, for example, would not be subject to the tax, but is not a healthy alternate choice.  Dark chocolate, which has antioxidant properties with possible health benefits in limited quantities, is subject to the tax, where as some gummy candies (also very popular in denmark), which have no putative health benefits, are not.   (This is all aside from the fact that Danes stocked up with mass amounts and record sales of saturated fat containing products in the weeks leading up to implementation of the tax – the thought of kilos of butter flying off of shelves makes me shudder!)

There are also criticisms that this approach, or any approach that comes from a government level for that matter, is a direct infraction of our freedom as consumers to choose what we want to buy and consume.  The tax may also have a particularly challenging financial impact on low income families, as the tax may preferentially affect many lower cost food items.

The global response to Denmark’s leading step on the fat tax issue is varied.  France was quick to follow one week later with an announced tax on sugary soft drinks, and debate is now at an all-time high in many other countries.

So what is the right answer to this very difficult question?  Personally, I think that government-level regulations are necessary to curb obesity in our society over the long term, as our environment is extremely toxic and conducive towards weight gain, and unlikely to change substantially unless those changes come from above.  However, the changes that are made have to be selected and cultivated carefully, so as to ascertain that the impact is the intended one.  In Canada, many different regulations are being considered, including taxation of junk food, banning certain ingredients or foods outright, regulating sodium content of foods, and regulating the number and density of fast food restaurants (these considerations are nicely summarized in an article by Dr MJ Eisenberg in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last month – a free download).

I’m interested to hear what my readers think about this very controversial issue.

Dr Sue Pedersen © 2011

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